Hanoch Levin (Based on three stories by Chekhov)
Cameri Theatre, Tel Aviv, Israel

Production photo

This play is as much about life as it is about death.

Levin, a challenging and inspiring Israeli playwright, wrote and directed the play knowing his days are numbered. He was diagnosed with bone cancer. That was in 1999. He died that year aged 56, leaving a legacy of 56 plays, 34 of which were staged, and many directed by him, in his lifetime.

In this performance, the Cameri maintained his direction and some of the actors from the original production.

Levin draws on characters from three of Chekhov's short stories, with themes of death, grief, lament and the meaning (or meaningless) of life. His characters voice in direct speeches some of Chekhov's narratives, amplifying these themes.

His Hebrew, though poetic, flows seamlessly, gripping the listener from the outset and transporting the audience effortlessly to the microcosm of a dark reality adorned with wit and humour. English subtitles are shown in certain performances.

A nameless old couple with ashen complexions and dressed in nondescript off-white outfits, resembling Bruegel's characters, live in a remote village inhabited by elderly people. The old man (Joseph Carmon) laments the infrequency of funerals in the village, a fact that deprives him, the coffin-maker, of income. He assesses every aspect of life in terms of profits and losses (Chekhov's Rothschild's Fiddle). The old lady (Jeeta Monta) serves and fears him, as she had been conditioned to justify her upkeep. She is 69 years old. The old man is fully conscious of that fact. When she complains of breathlessness, the husband in the old man shows a hint of tenderness that is soon to be eclipsed by mercenary calculations. He decides to take her to see a nurse, who is as good as a doctor, and naturally a great deal cheaper. The old man's suggested affection comes too late for the old lady (Chekhov's Sorrow).

The nurse, to whom the desperate poor individuals come for a panacea, serves as an illusive straw to the old and the young. A mother with her dying baby is given the same bandage and ointment that was prescribed to the old woman and will later be given to the old man. The young desperate mother's path briefly crosses that of the old man's. Each of them despairs in their own way, yet both are carried by life rather than live life.

The old man regrets his failure to take advantage of opportunities that could have enriched him and his wife. A brief reflection of what life could have been like, where the old woman comes to join him in a slow affectionate dance and both are showered with rose petals, is a painful and sobering reminder that happiness is there to be had if one chose to enjoy it.

The old man's two journeys to the nurse provide opportunities to meet a mixed bag of characters. The Carter (Itzhak Heskia) uncannily reminds me of the Carter in Chechov's Grief where he is desperate to share the pain of losing a son. The 'sophisticated' whore with a mole (Anat Slonim), the whore with a beauty mark (Sigalit Fuchs) who can talk of life in France, and the two drunks in the carriage, add dark humour to the hopeless reality.

Levin's direction personifies the old couple's house as well as the nurse's house as if to say that humanity and warmth are in the shell and not in mankind.

As a fairy tale about death, angels are essential to redeem the play from total despair. Three Cherubs pass through the villages to gather the souls of the dead. The superb performance of all three, Happy Cherub (Dror Keren), Joking Cherub (Alon Neuman) and the Sad Cherub (Dina Blei) introduce humour and humanity where hardly any existed.

The music for this production is composed by Yossi Ben Noon, an exceptionally talented composer. He gauges the mood and generates an extra dimension to a profoundly thought provoking play which raises issues one tends to avoid rather than confront.

Reviewer: Rivka Jacobson

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