Sunday, 13 February 2011

Review: Reading Hebron (Orange Tree Theatre)

The new Orange Tree Theatre season gets off to a disappointing start with the British premiere of Jason Sherman’s Reading Hebron. It’s the second play by the Canadian playwright that the Orange Tree has presented, and like Three In The Back, Two In The Head (staged in late 2005), Reading Hebron takes as its focus a real-life murder, in this case the massacre of twenty-nine Muslims carried out in the Mosque in the Cave of the Patriarchs by a Kiryat Arba settler, Dr. Baruch Goldstein, in February 1994. The play juxtaposes - and integrates - dramatised recreations of testimonies from the Israeli Government’s Commission of Inquiry into the killing with the frustrated investigations of one Nathan Abramowitz, a non-Israeli Jewish academic conducting his own examination of the massacre. Increasingly, the play becomes a stylised psychodrama that attempts to probe Abramowitz’s attitude to his Jewishness alongside the fallout from the tragic events in Hebron.

Director Sam Walters has stated that he intends Reading Hebron as a complement to The Promise, Ben Brown’s play about the 1917 Balfour Declaration (which led to the creation of the state of Israel) that was staged to great success at the OT earlier this year. The Promise had its problems, but it was a masterpiece of depth, insight, coherence and feeling compared to Reading Hebron. Despite a barrage of information and a superficial flow of movement and activity, the piece has no dramatic centre: what we have here feels like a ton of research and speeches in search of a play. A few individual lines resonate but Sherman’s writing is often mediocre, offering familiar banalities about the oppressed becoming the oppressors and getting hung up on the issue of Jews who criticise Israel being labelled as “self-hating.” The writer has clearly done his homework, but ultimately the play doesn’t give you as much as you might get from a book on Israel/Palestine - or, indeed, an article.

In addition, the attempts at theatrical inventiveness - notably, a protracted stand-up routine/game show sequence - feel peculiarly strained, as do the (sub-Angels in America) interventions of a variety of historical figures as commentators on the action: incarnations of Noam Chomsky, Hanan Ashrawi, Cynthia Ozick and Steven Spielberg (“There’s no business like Shoah-business!”) all turn up at various points. The multi-tasking cast - Peter Guinness, Ben Nathan, Amber Agar and Esther Ruth Elliott - work hard as they inhabit a range of protagonists of different ages and ethnicities, but since none of the characters are drawn with any depth, it’s hard to feel caught up in much that they say or do. And as Abramowitz, the usually reliable David Antrobus seems miscast; the protagonist’s agonies simply never become affecting, despite the actor’s best efforts. In sum, Reading Hebron is a dud and, uncharacteristically, Walters’s production doesn't so much redeem the play's faults as accentuate them.

The production runs for 100 minutes; no interval. Further information at the Orange Tree website.

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