Political Theatrics

There was going to be a demonstration that night, a big one, in Jerusalem, but my mom had bought tickets for some British dude’s performance of something about Shakespeare, and as a 16-year old my relationship with her and my father was sufficiently strained to make being included in an invitation to the theater something of an olive branch, so I decided to skip the demo that evening and go to the Wix and see the actor my father was so impressed with in one of the 1,181 appearances as as Antonio Salieri in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus.

Theater may have been my father’s first love, and his brilliant singing tenor was tempered with great significance when he’d recite this or that, mostly from memory. Yeah, he sure did bring words alive for me, which was nice for a kid but but handicapped me for the reality of hideous school-based performances which I had to attend as part of the 70’s and early 80’s curriculum of Israeli schools. Schools never did get performances where the thundering truth of the play roars through the actors and audience and brings life to the characters and story and audience and transports everyone in attendance into the world first glimpsed inside the playwright’s mind. Instead, the actors would carefully e-nun-ci-ate every word, with an eye on the adult members of the audience and a condescending lilt in their voices. Overacting was the order of the day in the productions subsidized for schools, intended to slam culture into students. Having seen the real deal (my father’s rendering of The New Colossus – the text on the Statue of Liberty, you know the one, “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses longing to breathe free” –  would make a copper stature cry), I was not impressed. But hey, Dad said the actor was really all that good, so I went along.

We walked from home that clear evening, the sky clear and bright without a cloud. It was about twenty minutes from home, and my parents talked about the stuff parents talk about: plans, and how they’d heard about the show, and what they needed to do the next day, and I zoned out, ignoring my surroundings as best I could. Rehovot was not really where I wanted to be.

Now let me tell you about the Wix Auditorium. It seats 583 people, has acoustics that were quite a blessing in the national children’s choirs sing-off I attended between discovering I could sing and finding out that choirs kept getting preached to, and at least in 1983 had rather comfy, red plush seats. We got in, found our seats, somewhere in the left side of the back of the Wix after having greeted the umpteen million people my father knew, and soon enough the lights dimmed and the stage was lit – no curtain, if I remember correctly – and into the spotlight walked a rather nondescript man in street clothes, stepped up to a chair, and walked around the stage, pacing around a piece of parquet and pretending to read from the grave of one William, A bard from Avon, who’d died a few centuries before.

Soon enough McKellen straddled the chair and told us all about Shakespeare, quoting pieces to illustrate points, jumping up on the chair, leaning on a grand piano, running across the stage, stopping only for a short intermission, telling us all about how Juliet was really a petulant teenager and how Midsummer Night’s Dream was merely droll, and ended up with a rousing performance of Macbeth’s response to the news of his wife’s demise. Remember that part of the Scottish play?

Seyton has just told the king that his wife, the queen, was dead. It’s in Act V, Scene V (of the VIII), and – oh, here. Just take it from the bard himself:

SEYTON:

The queen, my lord, is dead.

MACBETH:

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Properly done, it is a speech to make every hair on your body stand and shiver, and every eye in every audience spring a tear. McKellen did  it properly at the Wix that night, and there was a moment of silence after that “nothing” when the audience was too stunned to realize that the show was over.

Then – in unison – every member of that audience stood up and clapped, applauding the performance which had so stirred us all.

McKellen went back stage, but returned a moment later, and graciously accepted a large bouquet of spring flowers handed to him by a curly-haired young woman.

My vision blurred at that point, because what he did next was to walk over to the exact spot on the stage where he had walked around, at the very beginning of the performance, two hours earlier, and lay that bouquet without a word on the bare parquet, where every one of the 583 people in the room now saw again the grave of William Shakespeare, Bard of Avon. Without a word he bowed to the grave – then to the audience – and exited, stage left.

In the many years of tragedy and joy that have passed since that evening, I have found much sustenance in the energy of that room and that night. The craft of stage and story were exposed to me that night in an indelible, transformative way. My career – translation and teaching and showing and interpreting and peace work –  was sealed at the moment when Sir Ian (as he is now) lay that wreath on what was no longer a bare parquet stage.

The gut-level punch of understanding carried me home in almost a dance, under the bright stars of the clear February night. My parents were just as touched (which I thought, but couldn’t verify for many years – but which my father did eventually confirm a few months ago, in an email.) There was no question in my mind that I would go forth and make the world that much clearer, as McKellen had done for me.

When we got home and turned on the TV news, we found that a live grenade had been thrown at my group in the demonstration, and one of the committed peace activists, Emil Greenzweig, standing in that Jerusalem demonstration, working for peace and justice and demanding accountability for the Sabra and Shatila massacres which Israel’s army had allowed to happen on its watch – had been killed.

Thanks and acknowledgements: my parents, who took me to see Acting Shakespeare; Darlene, who brought the pictures of Shakespear’s grave from her trip to England last year; Joey, who brought acting forcefully back into my family’s life by pushing it, like drugs, for my children; Sir Ian McKellen, who touched my life quite forcefully again, years later (but that’s a story for another post), my adopted sister, who inspired the title of this post, and the cats who have, over the years, licked the tears that flow when I try and explain about Shakespeare.