Reading Hebron

Jason Sherman
Orange Tree Theatre
(2011)

Jason Sherman's controversial Reading Hebron, written in 1995 when he was about the age of his protagonist, had some older burghers of Richmond riled by its audacious post-mortem into what it means to be a Jew in the West after the massacre of twenty-nine Muslims by Dr. Baruch Goldstein, member of the far right Kach party, at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994. Sam Walters, the production's director and artistic director of the Orange Tree, was looking anxious.

But what a dynamic production of a fiery script! We may have heard the arguments before, but not like this. I am watching Peter Kosminsky's The Promise on Channel 4, and reading Howard Jacobson's Booker prize-winning The Finkler Question. I'm getting background, but who hasn't these last sixty years that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been raging, dividing Jews and non-Jews alike. Who hasn't been asking questions?

None more so than Nathan Abramowitz, the thirty-something idealist, lapsed (can one say lapsed?) Jew, who has never been to Israel, is separated from his shiksa wife and has two uncircumcised sons. Reading about the massacre sends him spiralling into an obsessive search for the inner truth about himself and his tribe.

He is on a one-man mission, delving into and listening to the testimonies of witnesses (106 witnesses, 16 behind close doors) at the Commission of Inquiry investigation into whether Goldstein acted alone or with accomplices.

Like Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov, he has brain fever. Racing from pillar to post, trying to read everything on Hebron, his mind splintering under the strain of piecing together a rational perspective that the real slips into the surreal.

He visits libraries, pesters prominent people, questions the living and the dead - his late grandfather, Yitzhak Rabin's granddaughter, Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, Hanan Ashrawi, Rabbi Lerner, and Yeshayahu Leibowitz who said that Israel is going through a Nazification process, the secular state having nothing to do with Judaism.

A babel of voices, simultaneously speaking the text and the subtext, social politesse and masked inner rage. Combustible irrationality, crises of the brain and on the ground, words matter. Sharon calling Palestinians 'cockroaches', dehumanising the enemy, makes extermination easier.

Nathan recollects the traditional family seder, hiding the matzah, asking the four questions as a child. (Thankfully, there is a glossary of terms as well as an historical timeline in the programme notes.) The four questions he wants to ask now as a troubled adult are: did I help Goldstein murder the twenty-nine? am I Goldstein? do Jews have a greater right to live there? is my life worth more than a filthy Arab's?

What does it mean to be a conflicted Jew straitjacketed by loyalty? If he is not with them, is he against them? Nathan claims he loves Israel, but it will disappear if it continues on its present inexorable path.

He bears witness with sincerity, mounting mania, and with jokes, lots of jokes (five seconds to speak on Hebron in a game show; there's no business like Shoah business). Is he an ashamed self-hating 'assimilationist'?

Or simply a confused man reaching back into comforting tradition, into the Torah, which says thou shalt not kill, nor covet thy neighbour's land? How have they come to this, the chosen ones, the light unto nations?

Goldstein was free to carry his rifle openly into the Tomb. His bag of ammunition was not searched. If an Israeli shoots, it is always in self-defence, and the IDF never shoot at a settler whatever the situation.

David Antrobus, eyes sparkling, gives a mercurial performance full of manic energy - the play is on his shoulders, and he is dynamite - pitch and timing perfect.

Ben Nathan, Peter Guinness, Amber Agha, and Esther Ruth Elliott share the myriad other roles between them, changing age, sex, nationality, culture. I applaud their swift shape-shifting versatility.

Sam Walters' direction is intelligent, imaginative, riveting. The pace is relentless; the set economical - a large table, with piles of books, newspapers, and constantly ringing telephones, commanding the centre around which the action swirls.

The Arab-Israeli issue is not about to be resolved soon. Before you can change the world, you have to change human nature. Brainwashing, mutual hatred and resentment, talking and killing, killing and talking, when and where will it end? There are no answers, only positions.

Provocative and engaging Reading Hebron is an intense no interval hundred minutes. If you want your mind stimulated, go; if you find the subject offensive pull the shutters down, or even take a chance on having your hackles raised. 'Now we are slaves, next year may we be free', is the last vital line of the play.

Till 12th March 2011

Vera Liber