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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Reading Hebron
Orange Tree Theatre     February-March 2011

This 1996 play by Canadian writer Jason Sherman attempts to capture and understand the Israel-Palestine situation in 90 minutes, and insofar as the play is an incoherent mess, it may ironically succeed, though it is hard to believe that this is exactly what the author intended.

Sherman takes an actual event as his starting point. In February 1994 an American-born Israeli shot up a mosque in the West Bank town of Hebron, killing 29 Muslims before being killed himself.

Sherman creates a fictional American Jew, Nathan, who becomes obsessed with the shooting and attempts to make sense of it and, more importantly, figure out what he is supposed to feel about it. (The playwright's conclusion, roughly, is pro-Jewish and anti-Israel.)

Nathan's obsessive reading and research allows Sherman to fill his play with whole chunks of the official Israeli investigation into the shooting, along with the commentary of others ranging from academics like Edward Said and Noam Chomsky, through activists like Hanan Ashrawi, to journalists and columnists like Abraham Rosenthal and Cynthia Ozick.

Sherman and director Sam Walters do find some theatrically effective ways of incorporating all this data into the play, staging some of the inquiry's testimony and allowing (in what are obviously not realistic moments) Nathan to run into Said and others at bookstores and dinner parties and get their words from their own mouths.

A sense of the overwhelming mountain of data he's trying to absorb is nicely captured by imagining a nightmarish TV game show in which Rosenthal and others are given thirty seconds to say everything they have to say about the subject before being stopped by the buzzer.

Another effective device has some of the people Nathan encounters abruptly turning vicious and insulting, only to snap right back into politeness, so that we realise the outburst never actually happened, but was just his projection of what he imagined they must secretly feel about him.

But those moments are about all that work in this play.

Despite the earnest efforts of actor David Antrobus, the character of Nathan is never made real or sympathetic.

The playwright's attempts to flesh him out with a broken marriage, an affair with a co-worker, a comic Jewish mother and a hint of sexual masochism to go along with his moral torments merely trivialise and insult the serious themes of the play, while using the Passover seder as a parallel and metaphor only confuses things further.

More importantly, Nathan's soul-searching and pain at trying to understand what he as an American Jew should feel about Israel seem so petty compared to the real tragedies that it's very difficult to care about him and his self-indulgent liberal guilt.

(One of his big self-lacerating points, that there is something wrong about valuing his own life over a stranger's, is lifted bodily from Arthur Miller's After The Fall, and Sherman is not as great a writer as Miller.)

None of this is to criticise the performances of David Antrobus as Nathan and of Ben Nathan, Peter Guinness, Amber Agha and Esther Ruth Elliott as Everyone Else, as all strive heroically to hold our interest and some sense of reality.

Jason Sherman actually says all he really has to say about the subject quite early in the play, when one of the first people Nathan questions about the Israel-Palestine problem says, 'There are no answers, only positions. What's yours?'

The remaining eighty-nine minutes of the play really add very little to that challenge.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Reading Hebron - Orange Tree Theatre 2011

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