Israeli Playwright Joshua Sobol Confronts Oppression And Corrupt Leadership With His Work

Joshua Sobol. (Courtesy New Repertory Theatre)
Joshua Sobol. (Courtesy New Repertory Theatre)

His plays have made an impact, causing a riot in a Tel Aviv theater, championing the rights of Palestinians and attracting the attention of renowned British actor Brian Cox.

Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol may not cause quite as much commotion in the Boston area as he begins a two-week residency, but with titles like that of the lecture he’s scheduled to deliver at no less than five Boston area venues — "Theatre as a Form of Resistance to Oppression and Genocide" — don’t expect a celebration of contemporary political leaders.

“I read only today in the newspapers about the human catastrophe in Africa,” the keenly attentive Sobol said in a recent interview. “There are some 20 million people who are risking starvation there in Africa because of these tribal wars that are going on there, and which seem to have no obvious reason except just making war for the sake of war."

“This is one side of the coin,” the playwright added. “The other side of the coin is what happens in Europe and the United States with nations who are becoming very paranoid and fearful because of the wave of refugees, asylum seekers and so on. The two phenomena are interconnected, of course ... I think that this wave of panic is very dangerous because we don’t have adequate leaders in the Western world or adequate leadership to face that problem and to solve it somehow and deal with it.”

"I think that this wave of panic is very dangerous because we don’t have adequate leaders in the Western world or adequate leadership to face that problem and to solve it somehow and deal with it."

Joshua Sobol

Where political leadership fails, the arts often — and fearlessly — pick up the slack. Sobol's residency will be with Boston-based Israeli Stage, but his sojourn here also happens to coincide with a season in which the New Repertory Theatre's theme is "What's Past is Prologue." (And, in case you don't get what they're hinting at, one of its first productions this year was the cautionary tale "Good" about a decent man's slide into Nazism; another was a pointed reading of "Fiddler on the Roof.")

Sobol's visit is also planned to unfold in parallel with New Rep's month-long "New Works" festival, which includes a presentation of Greensboro Arts Alliance & Residency/Mirror Theater's fully staged production of his play, "Sinners." Staged readings of two more of Sobol's works are also on the itinerary, one of them a world premiere by Israeli Stage. (Sobol will also take time out of his lecture series to chat live with The ARTery's editor Ed Siegel at the Charles Mosesian Center in Watertown.)

The story of this remarkable cross-institutional adventure begins with Israeli Stage’s producing artistic director and founder, Guy Ben-Aharon, meeting Sobol in Israel in 2012, just a couple of years after the company’s start in 2010.

Of the prolific Sobol — author of more than 75 plays over the course of a career spanning four decades — Ben-Aharon said, “He embodies the act of winking, if you will. Very whimsical, very sharp, cynical, yet optimistic."

“A few months after we first met,” Ben-Aharon continued, “Israeli Stage presented the American premiere of 'Sinners' ... as a staged reading with Nael Nacer and Maureen Keiller.”

That initial meeting eventually led to an invitation to Sobol to travel to Boston for the "In Residence" program at the Israeli Stage, which is “dedicated to bringing top Israeli playwrights to the Greater Boston Area to workshop new plays,” according to an Israeli Stage statement.

That goal will be fulfilled with the world premiere of "David, King," a new Sobol work, in a staged reading featuring Boston actor Jeremiah Kissel. "David, King," Sobol said, is an interpretation of the historical Jewish leader as a man reluctant to accept his place on the throne.

“I took the biblical story of King David, and I tried to create a kind of narrative that is not [typically] the kind of narrative when we deal with King David,” Sobol said. “I represent him as a king who didn’t want to be king, who was basically an artist — a musician, a songwriter, a poet. And he is somehow forced to take over the throne of Judea. On every occasion that offers itself he tries to get rid of the throne. … He says he doesn’t seek to power.”

The playwright pointed out that his interpretation has scriptural roots. “I found it in the Biblical story… King Saul was [a] paranoid person and he [feared] David was dreaming after the throne. King Saul tried to kill David and tussled with him… On various occasions in the Biblical story, David says to him, ‘Listen, I could kill you, but I don’t want to kill you. Please understand, I don’t want to become a king. Leave me alone.’ And so in this sense it’s a kind of a comedy, but it’s a serious comedy, saying, ‘Maybe we should elect leaders who are not greedy for power, and who are not eager to stick to power. People who… when the mission is accomplished, they are ready to step aside and give it over to others.' ”

He tied the theme of the new play to current events, remarking, “I believe that in our situation, when we see leaders sticking to power for longer periods, power corrupts and they become corrupted. Corruption is again a danger, because corrupt leaders are always trying to justify themselves by creating a crisis and saying, ‘Now is a time of national emergency; our existence is in danger,’ and so on. …'David, King' has to do with that question of what is an ideal king, or an ideal leader. In my mind, it’s someone who has a very clear mission, and if the people don’t want to follow him on that mission he says, ‘OK, I’m not imposing it on you. I’m stepping aside. Do what you want.’ ”

Sobol has never been afraid to court controversy with his work. "Ghetto," one of his first plays — and still his most famous — examines the Holocaust through a surreal lens. A 1985 play titled "Palestinian Girl," written when he was assistant artistic director for a theater in Haifa, challenged deep-seated Israeli notions even before the play went up.

“You see,” the playwright explained, “in the '80s it was almost a taboo in Israel to use the word ‘Palestinian,’ ” a taboo that Sobol clarified by noting that accepting “Palestinian” as a name for a genuine and distinct minority means “we have to recognize the Palestinians as a people; and then once you recognize them as a people, you have to accept that they have rights as a people… using the word ‘Palestinian’ and putting it on the posters on the theater was already a challenge for many people, and we had problems with subscribers of the Haifa theater of the time who protested against the title of the play. They wanted [the theater] to return their subscriptions because we had the word ‘Palestinian’ on the poster.” In the end, the fuss was worth it: “I don’t say that I was the only one, but I helped also to legitimize the use of that word.

"I think that theater and the arts in general, when they make a common effort and they join forces, they can change the discourse in a society. They can change the priorities."

Joshua Sobol

“I think that theater and the arts in general, when they make a common effort and they join forces, they can change the discourse in a society. They can change the priorities,” Sobol continued. “I am not naïve; I am not exaggerating in estimating the power of theater or of art to change political trends, but you can do something. I feel it is my duty. It is still my duty now.”

A few years later, in 1988, Sobol created still more controversy with his play "The Jerusalem Syndrome," which so outraged theatergoers a riot broke out and Sobol ended up leaving his post at the theater. Despite the personal cost, Sobol saw the response to the play as a sign that he was on the right path.

“I must say that the moment when the riots broke out in the auditorium when we played 'The Jerusalem Syndrome' in Tel Aviv for the first time, in January 1988 — it was a moment when the auditorium really became a kind of arena of violence — it was a moment when I felt that the theater is doing what it should do, because the play was about the danger of society indulging in zealotism, fanaticism — and a warning that if we will indulge in a nationalistic fanaticism, we will maybe end up in a catastrophe and the destruction of the state of Israel, because I believe that the fanatics, they lead society to disaster,” Sobol recounted. “I think we are still running the danger in Israel. Now we have a government, the most extreme right wing government we had in our short history of 70 years, and it is a government that fills me with apprehension, and with fear sometimes.”

But Sobol has not stopped responding to the times as he feels he must. Another play he's only recently completed is titled "Bereaved," in which two families — one Israeli, the other Palestinian — meet. The Israeli clan has lost a son, but its Palestinian counterpart has also sustained the loss of a child, a daughter, who was shot at a checkpoint.

"We're trying to deal in this play with bereavement as a reason to look deep into what they are doing and to understand that [while] it is a catastrophe on a personal level for the families, we should consider it a catastrophe on the national level," Sobol said, adding that if no humane and compassionate solution is found, Israelis and Palestinians will "become two bereaved societies, [each of them] badly injured.

"Now, we are going to do the play with two couples," the playwright continued. "A couple of Israeli Jewish actors, and another couple of Palestinian actors. Also, maybe, part of it will be in Hebrew and part of it will be in Arabic. We shall see what the audience will make of it." With a laugh, Sobol confessed, "I don't know what to expect."

That sense of blended urgency and uncertainty also colored the Vermont production of Sobol’s play "Sinners." After Israeli’s Stage’s American premiere of the play as a staged reading in 2013, a full production by Greensboro Arts Alliance & Residency/Mirror Theater eventually followed. Mirror Theater will repeat the feat for Sobol’s visit, though this time the play will be staged in Boston, at TheatreLab@855, in a presentation by the New Repertory Theatre in association with the Boston University-affiliated Boston Center for American Performance.

Nicole Ansari and Ben Getz in "Sinners." (Courtesy Charlie McAteer)
Nicole Ansari and Ben Getz in "Sinners." (Courtesy Charlie McAteer)

Actress Nicole Ansari reprises her role as Layla, a married teacher charged with having an adulterous affair with a young man named Nur. When Nur betrays her, Layla faces death by stoning. It’s strong stuff, and Ansari felt so strongly about the work that she ended up played a key role in getting "Sinners" to the stage in Vermont in the first place.

“I’ve known Joshua for 20 years,” Ansari said in a recent phone conversation that included her husband, actor and director Brian Cox. “I worked with him on a play called 'Alma' that he wrote especially for the international theater festival in Vienna.”

Ansari went on to explain that “about four years ago he sent me this play, ['Sinners'], and said to me, ‘I think you should do this play. You are perfect for this.’ I read it and I was just bawling; I had to read it two times in a row because the first time I read it I just couldn’t read it because my tears were all over the paper.” When Cox found his wife in this state and asked what she was reading, she showed him Sobol’s play. Cox decided on the spot he wanted to direct it.

Fast forward to 2015, when Ansari had just finished starring in a run of "Hamlet" with Mirror Theater. The play’s director, Sabra Jones — also the producing director for Greensboro Arts Alliance & Residency/Mirror Theater — asked Ansari what she might like to do for the following season.

“I said, ‘Well, besides "Medea" and "Hedda Gabler," I don’t know,' " Ansari recounted. “There is one play, but I don’t think it’s right for Vermont. It’s about a woman being stoned to death for adultery in the Middle East.”

Sabra, however, loved the script. “She was all over it… she said, ‘No, no, no, we can make this work. It think it’s perfect,’ ” Ansari said. Cox signed on as director, and the show went up.

“I had always wanted to direct Nicole, and she would be the perfect vehicle [for this play] in some ways,” Cox chimed in. “She’s half Iranian, so it’s part of her culture.”

Vermont audiences responded appreciatively. Despite their uncertainty about how the play would be received, Cox said, “the reaction was tremendous, absolutely tremendous. People came back two or three times to see it.” Then the production found fresh life, thanks to Sobol’s planned visit. Cox recalled that “the people from Boston said, ‘Would you bring it? We’re doing this retrospective of Joshua’s writing.’ ”

"...if you feel that it’s your destiny to share your insights, then you do it with your means. I do it with my plays."

Joshua Sobol

“Retrospective” might not quite be the word for it, just as "Sinners" does not exactly fit into the New Repertory Theatre’s month-long Festival of New Works ("We're grouping it with the festival even though it’s not very new, but [it’s] new to Boston,” New Rep publicist Michael Duncan Smith explained.), but a sense of occasion, and of communal enthusiasm, attends this celebration of Sobol and his career.

Sobol gave a suitably lyrical summary of his work as our interview wound down. “There was a poet, Elsa Lasker-Schüler, a German Jewish poet who compared the artist to a tree that gives its fruits. She said he cannot force anyone to eat the fruits that he offers, but he cannot help giving the fruits. I accept the metaphor, and I think this is probably the best view of the artist. If you can avoid it, then you must not offer anything. But if you feel that it’s your destiny to share your insights, then you do it with your means. I do it with my plays."

Kilian Melloy Theater Critic
Kilian Melloy is a contributor to WBUR's The ARTery.



More from WBUR

Listen Live