With a Little Help from My Friends: Celebrating Pinter’s Work in Tel Aviv

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pinterfull1Does the Israeli theater audience have the capacity to relate to the ambiguity and deceptive simplicity of Harold Pinter, renowned British playwright, poet and activist, recipient of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature? This was one of the issues that arose when Israeli actor, director and playwright Oded Kotler teamed up with Professor Avraham Oz, literary scholar and translator (Shakespeare and Pinter among others), to celebrate Pinter’s work with full length productions of his plays in Tel Aviv. Although they were not able to realize their vision fully, their year long project comes to fruition this weekend in a three-way cooperative effort between Habima National Theatre, Tmuna Theatre and The British Council. Pinter’s “Betrayal” (1978) premieres tonight at Habima and a full schedule of staged readings (11 plays), poetry, song and discussion, begins tomorrow at Tmuna.

Sadly, Pinter, who died on December 24, 2008, did not live to enjoy this recognition of his work in Israel. Professor Oz relates that despite Pinter’s known criticism of Israeli politics, the playwright was very eager for the Israeli audience to become better acquainted with his work and was pleased to learn that one of his plays, “Mountain Language” (1988) will be read in Arabic. The spirit of cooperation and enthusiasm generated by the festival is exemplified by the fact that all the participants in the events at Tmuna, including over 50 actors, singers, directors and musicians – have volunteered their time and talents.

Oz feels that Pinter’s work has suffered as a result of being tagged “absurdist theatre” in Martin Esslin’s influential book: The Theatre of the Absurd, first published in 1961. Subsequent staging of Pinter’s work according to this interpretation, in an “absurd space with no location” was not appropriate to the work, according to Oz, and audiences responded with boredom and disinterest. In later years, Pinter’s work came to be viewed as realist drama, and was well received, Oz relates, citing a 1984 production of “Homecoming” directed by Ilan Ronen. Oz’s perception of Pinter as a realist is supported by Pinter’s own words, in an address given in 1962 at the National Student Drama festival in Bristol: “I have usually begun a play in quite a simple manner; found a couple of characters in a particular context, thrown them together and listened to what they said, keeping my nose to the ground. The context has always been, for me, concrete and particular, and the characters concrete also.”

The festival at Tmuna introduces a Pinter “first”: the translation of his poetry into Hebrew. Famous for his plays, it is not as widely known that Pinter began writing poetry well before he became a playwright, and continued to write until his final days. Oz translated a selection of 18 poems from different phases in Pinter’s career, reflecting the development of his writing style. According to Oz, the early poems reveal the influence of T. S. Eliot in their more elaborate language and complex images. Oz comments, “In the early poems there are plays on words, he even invents words, creating compound words…the modernism is very apparent. It was the 1950s and he was a young man in his twenties…you can see that he had a great passion for words and was very talented.” Oz looked to the poetry of Nathan Alterman as a Hebrew parallel to this phase of Pinter’s poetry.

As Pinter began to write plays (The Birthday Party, his first dramatic work, premiered in 1958), the language of his poetry changed, says Oz:  “there is more freedom in his use of language, it becomes more of an everyday language – the words are simpler, more straightforward, influenced, among other things, by the realist character of his dramatic work. The poetry is in the syntax.” Pinter’s last poems deal primarily with politics and death. As part of the festival, several Israeli musicians – Yaheli Sobol, Karni Postel, Shaul Besser and Tal Belchrovitch set the poems to music and they will be both read and sung in an evening devoted to Pinter’s poetry late Friday night at Tmuna.

Oz has translated many of Pinter’s works throughout the years and says, “He is a mathematician of words, he is not an easy writer. Each word is carefully thought out; there is a rhythm to the writing. It’s fun, it’s a challenge. You really have to listen with his ear.” Oz first translated “Betrayal” in 1980 and says that when rehearsals began for the current Habima production, he went over the text line by line with the actors, making several changes so that the feel of “everyday language” would reflect the changes in the Hebrew of today as compared to 1980.

Oz first met Pinter at a party in London in the 1970s, but in the last ten years the two developed a close friendship and correspondence. Michael Billington, Pinter’s official biographer, issued a revised edition of his original 1996 text, with a new chapter covering the decade from 1996 to 2006. The title of this new chapter is taken from a letter Pinter wrote to Oz, a testimony to the significance of that relationship. In planning the current festival Kotler and Oz wanted to “break the myth” that Israeli audiences are not “ready” for Pinter – the audience has demonstrated that it is ready and eager, as several of the plays at Tmuna are already sold out. Oz further expressed his hope that “this weekend will be a trigger and inspire more of these events that highlight the work of playwrights who may not be first on the list of repertory theatres, but are important writers.” As Pinter wrote to Oz, in the letter quoted by Billington, “Let’s keep fighting.”.

Pinter Weekend Events:

Betrayal
Director: Moni Moshonov
Habima National Theater
Thursday, March 26th at 20:30
Yad Lebanim, 63 Pinkas Street, Tel Aviv
Tickets: 03-6295555
www.habima.co.il

Tmuna Theatre Pinter Weekend
Artistic Director: Moni Moshonov
Literary Consultant: Professor Avraham Oz

Friday, March 27th 
12:00 The Birthday Party staged reading
14:00 Hothouse staged reading
20:30 Three plays in staged reading:
Landscape, Dumbwaiter, The New World Order
23:00 An Evening of Pinter’s Poetry

Saturday, March 28th
11:00 Two plays in staged reading:
Celebration, Ashes to Ashes
12:30 Pinter’s World: A Discussion of His Work
Moderator: Professor Avraham Oz
Participants: Moni Moshonov, Michal Peles, Gideon Levy, Professor Shimon Levy, Hillel Mittelpunkt
18:00 The Homecoming staged reading
20:30 Three plays in staged reading:
Mountain Language, One for the Road, Night

Tmuna Theatre
8 Soncino Street, Tel Aviv
Tickets: 03-5611211
www.tmu-na.org.il