King Solomon and Shalmai the Cobbler

Sammy Gronemann; translation and lyrics by Natan Alterman
Habima theatre, Tel Aviv
(2006)

Production photograph

Fairytale-like décor to resemble a child's image of King Solomon's Palace, embellished with ravishing sets, colourful costume, fabulous humour topped by a superb performance, sums up the production of this musical comedy.

King Solomon (Avi Kushnir) in a lavish palace, with some of his concubines and his mother Bat Sheba (Rivka Gur), learns that in the streets of Jerusalem there is a drunken cobbler who physically resembles him.

Shalmai, the cobbler (Avi Kushnir) loves his drink and laments his misfortune. Even his beautiful wife Naama (Galit Giat) bullies him for failing to provide a comfortable life for her. The king asks to see the cobbler and is astonished by his likeness to himself. He proposes they change clothes and identities. One would be hard pressed not to recall Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper. Here it is a King and the Cobbler's wife and the King's concubines ensure to turn the scenes into humours encounters leading to a chain of comedy of errors.

The only one to spot the difference is Solomon's mother. She confides in Shalmai that she knows he is not the King but is happy to pretend otherwise. The King dressed and accepted as a cobbler is agonising in his new identity. The Cobbler, dressed as a King, is distressed by the absences of certain freedoms he was accustomed to and the ceremonies he has to comply with. The King dressed as a cobbler is treated as such. His protestation when beaten by his own guards leads to ridicule by his 'peer group', who show great generosity and kindness by collecting money to assist their poor helpless 'cobbler'.

The King's guards, blinded by the opulent clothing of the cobbler, dressed up as their King, fail to appreciate that his incongruous behaviour is at odds with the behaviour of the King they served for years. One of Solomon's thousand wives, Nofit, Pharoah's daughter, brilliantly performed by Miri Mesika, interprets the changes in the King's behaviour as treachery and betrayal and she swears revenge.

The musical was originally written in German as a piece of drama. It was translated by the Israeli poet Natan Alterman and in 1943 it was produced in the Ohel (=Tent) Theatre in Tel Aviv. The Cameri revived the play in 1964, now as a musical with the additional lyrics by Natan Alterman and music by the Israeli composer Sasha Argov. It was a tremendous success.

In the present production, Argov's music which is renown for its well-crafted European-style scores has been modified by Roni Rechter, the musical director, introducing drums, and electronic percussion to give the music a more contemporary and Middle Eastern flavour. Rechter admitted that modifying Argov's music is tantamount to a new translation of a masterpiece.

I haven't seen the 1964 version, but some of those who saw both productions, regret the changes.

The dances that accompanied the songs were imaginatively choreographed by Danny Rachom and Zahi Patish. Some of the dances resembled gentle belly-dancing and others were in the Hip Hop and Breakdance styles. The costume, music and dances complemented each other and helped to make an enjoyable evening.

Reviewer: Rivka Jacobson