First Night: Hare shows the worth of values

Via Dolorosa, Royal Court at the Duke of York's, London
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The Independent Online
"I'VE ALWAYS tried to get Judi Dench to do this sort of thing," quips the distinguished dramatist David Hare, at the start of the evening. Putting words into other people's mouths has been his forte until now. Here, though, in his first stage performance since he played Thomas Cromwell in a school production of A Man For All Seasons, the words are pouring from the horse's (or the Hare's) mouth.

The occasion is Via Dolorosa, the playwright's witty, passionate meditation on a recent trip to Israel, a state just 11 months younger than he is. An atheist from a Christian background, he'd declined previous invitations. But then he began to notice that, for quite a time, faith and belief had been his subject as a dramatist.

What intrigued him was the contrast between Britain and Israel. In the former, it feels as if you don't have to believe in anything any more; in the latter, belief is mandatory.

One of the many revealing comic moments comes when Hare is explaining this view to the Israeli cast rehearsing his play Amy's View at a theatre in Tel Aviv. He tells them Tel Aviv may be the worst place to perform this piece as here everyone passionately argues about their country. In England, by contrast, Tony Blair will do anything he thinks is popular. At which point an Israeli actor pipes up: "Oh please, please send us your Tony Blair."

As Hare travels, it becomes clearer that the divisions between secular and religious Jews are as deep as those between Jew and Arab.

What gives the evening its emotional pull is the force with which Hare interrogates his own values. Watching the pious stoop to kiss a stone whose position is disputed prompts him to ask what it is they are kissing: a stone or an idea?Hare's excellent script and Stephen Daldry's beautifully modulated production leave such questions resonating powerfully in the mind.

Paul Taylor