When the Lincoln Center Festival brochure came out last April, there were two shows that caught my attention. One was While I Was Waiting, a Syrian play about which I was just curious (for reasons I delineate in my report, posted on 1 August). The other, however, was a title I immediately recognized from a very enthusiastic review from the Jerusalem Post by my friend Helen Kaye: To the End of the Land, an adaptation by Hanan Snir (who also directed) of a 2008 novel by David Grossman (published in English in 2010 by Alfred A. Knopf). In her review (included in “Dispatches from Israel 8” on Rick On Theater on 12 September 2016, http://rickontheater.blogspot.com/2016/09/dispatches-from-israel-8.html), Helen called the play To the Edge of the Land (the original Hebrew title is Isha borachat m’besora [מבשורה בורחת אשה], which Helen translated as “A woman fleeing tidings”—though I’ve seen many various translations), and she wrote that the play was a “phenomenal, unforgettable, illuminating, wrenching evening at the theater.” She ended her review with the pronouncement: “To the Edge of the Land will keep you on the edge of your seat. A must see.” It’s not a sentiment I was likely to forget, and though Helen added, “Just for that it deserves an English version,” I never anticipated it’d show up here. When it did, however, I checked back with Helen and when I asked if she’d recommend seeing it, she said, “Oh absolutely.” So I immediately decided to go and in May booked a seat on Helen’s recommendation.
To the End of the Land, the eighth co-production of the Ha’Bima National Theatre and the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv, opened at the Ha’Bima in Tel Aviv on 20 February 2016 and then at the Cameri on 25 February; the production alternated between the two theaters, playing to sold-out houses, and then toured Israel. In 2017, the adaptation won most of the top awards at the Israel Theater Prizes: Best Original Israeli Play, Best Production, Best Director (Snir), and Best Actress in a Leading Role (Efrat Ben Zur), but the play has reportedly distressed some Israelis who’ve lost children to war or terrorism and others have been reluctant to see it. (“People were very moved by the play in Israel, they cried, some felt shock, they felt identified with the characters. Once people here [that is, the U.S.] identify with it, only then it can become universal,” reported director-adapter Snir.) The North American premiere of To the End of the Land (which we’ll see generated its own controversy) ran at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, part of the City University of New York, from 24 to 27 July 2017; I saw the 7:30 performance on Wednesday, 26 July. The performances were in Hebrew with English supertitles. (See my report on While I Was Waiting for a brief profile of the Lincoln Center Festival and the Lynch Theater.)
The avant-garde Ha’Bima National Theatre gives expression to the revolutionary spirit of the Jewish people through the revival of Hebrew culture and language. The origins of the Ha’Bima (also spelled Habima, meaning ‘the stage’ in Hebrew) go back to Bialystok, Poland, in 1912; it was reorganized in Moscow in 1917 when a company of Jewish theater enthusiasts—all Hebrew teachers—was formed. At the time, when the study of Hebrew was forbidden, this group was determined to found a professional avant-garde theater troupe, focusing on plays on Jewish themes, often performed in Yiddish. The company soon attracted the éminence grise of Russian theater, Konstantin Stanislavsky (1863-1938), who made the Ha’Bima one of the studios affiliated with his Moscow Art Theater. (Many of the company’s productions were directed by MAT’s Evgenii Vakhtangov, 1882-1923.) In 1931 the Ha’Bima moved to Palestine and opened in Tel Aviv; it became the Israel National Theater in 1958 and was granted state support. Its Tel Aviv venue, where it presents new works and classics in Hebrew, affords a home for creativity and an incubator for playwrights, directors, actors, and designers. The Ha’Bima also welcomes artists from abroad and has represented Israel in a variety of theater festivals around the world.
Founded in 1944, the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv is Israel’s largest theater, staging up to 12 new productions annually amounting to more than 2,000 performances a year in the theater’s five auditoriums. The Cameri has produced some 500 productions at home and on tour and keeps 20 shows in its repertoire. The company employs 80 actors, and its productions are staged by directors from both Israel and abroad. In addition to the Lincoln Center Festival, the Cameri has performed at leading theaters and festivals worldwide, including the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Barbican in London, Hannover Expo, Washington Shakespeare Festival at the Kennedy Center, Gdansk Shakespeare Festival, National Center for the Performing Arts (The Egg) in Beijing, and Moscow Theater of Nations, and more than 100 international tours with other productions. The Cameri’s yearly international theater festivals recently included Robert Wilson’s The Three Penny Opera and Arturo Ui from the Berliner Ensemble, Volksbühne (Berlin), Schaubühne (Berlin), Deutsches Theater (Berlin), National Theater of Norway, National Theater of the Czech Republic, Public Theater, National Theater of China, Shakespeare’s Globe (London), and more than 70 other theaters worldwide. The company’s productions have won more than 120 awards, including the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement and Special Contribution to Society and the State of Israel. This year, the company received an honorary fellowship from Tel Aviv University for its singular contribution to Israeli culture for its repertoire and for nurturing excellence in theatrical performance.
On the night I went to Land, the scene entering the Lynch Theatre with the heightened security was more like getting onto an airplane than into a theater. This was all because of the protest by Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel, a proponent of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (known as BDS) movement against Israel in opposition to the country’s treatment of the Palestinians. Some 60 noted theater artists, including actor-playwrights Tracy Letts and Wallace Shawn, playwrights Lynn Nottage and Annie Baker, director Andre Gregory, and writer-actress Greta Gerwig, signed a letter calling for the Lincoln Center Festival to cancel the production of To the End of the Land because it’s partly sponsored by the Israeli government. (Support for the production came from Israel’s Office of Cultural Affairs in North America.)
Lincoln Center rejected the demand. “As a cultural and education organization,” said Lincoln Center president Debora Spar in part in a statement, “. . . we are committed to presenting a wide variety of artistic voices and trust that the art we bring can stand on its own.” (A New York Times article about the controversy is at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/05/theater/artists-protest-lincoln-center-play-backed-by-israel.html, in case readers are interested. There’s a lot of other coverage of the protest, as well as some responses, on the Internet as well.) Free-speech organizations such as the National Coalition Against Censorship supported the Lincoln Center stand on presenting To the End of the Land under its umbrella.
A few yards from the entrance to the theater on 59th Street, there was a barricade across the sidewalk manned by a cop who stopped each pedestrian to ask if she or he was attending the play. Then at the foot of the steps leading up to the front of the building from the sidewalk was an LCF staffer with the evening’s will-call tickets (theatergoers who had their tickets with them had to show them) to be sure everyone entering was a bona fide ticketholder. (I doubt there were any spot tickets available—the house was full as far as I could see and the Forward reported that the run was sold out—and I don’t know what LCF did to deal with non-ticketed potential theatergoers.)
Just inside the entrance, there were CUNY security officers with metal-detector wands who checked bags and purses and metal objects that set off the indicators. This created a bottleneck, of course, so the audience was still entering the auditorium at 7:35 and even later (for a scheduled 7:30 curtain). I didn’t leave at intermission, but I assume there was also some security-checking for returning viewers to be sure no one sneaked in for the second act with a weapon or a banner.
(I’ve made my feelings known on the subject of censorship and attempted censorship very clearly, whether the effort comes from a government agency, a powerful corporation or industry group, or a politically, socially, or religiously motivated organization. My last statement on Rick On Theater on this kind of act, the demand that the Public Theater withdraw its Trump-invoking production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar from its summer Shakespeare in the Park season, was “Donald Julius Trump,” posted 27 June.)
The fact was, nothing came of the protest. There was no sign of demonstrators before, during, or after the show. (Of course, that doesn’t mean there couldn’t have been.) There was apparently an Israel supporter from the Jewish Defense League on hand, ready to counter-protest if necessary, but since no one showed, she was gone by the time I saw the play—the night before it closed.
Not that Land is in any way pro-Israeli in a jingoistic sense; Grossman, the author of the source novel, has frequently criticized the Israeli government over its treatment of Palestinians and the spread of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory. “This play in itself is a protest,” pronounced the novelist. “We protest against this situation of people in Israel living all the time under the threat of war after war after war, with no striving towards peace.” Adapter and director Snir asserts that the story “depicts the situation of the Israeli milieu and touches upon the shared multilayered trauma experienced by everyone living in this country. Jews, Arabs, rightists, leftists, secular Jews, and those who wear a kippa—we all share a common fate.” (A kippa or kippah is a skullcap or yarmulke worn by observant male Jews to show their devotion to God by keeping their heads covered.) It’s about the emotional and psychological devastation of war—especially constant war—and isn’t disparaging of Arabs or Palestinians except an occasional remark that’s directed at an enemy who’s shooting at, principally, the soldier-son of the play’s central character. (She utters a perfectly understandable curse at one point when she’s more than usually distraught.) In addition, the Arab cab driver the lead character hires, levels his own expletives at the Jews in a moment of anger and frustration at the plight of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs.
The plot of To the End of the Land is twisty—and time-bending—especially the way adapter and director Snir tells it. (Grossman, who had no hand in the adapted script, apparently tells the story more realistically and, I gather, straightforwardly—though it, too, jumps around in time.) It’s non-linear and leaves a lot of the (historical) facts out so that if you’re not up on Israeli history and, to a lesser extent, culture, you miss details that might be telling. (Do you know, for instance, what an “Arabic” salad is? It’s central to one scene, and Helen says it’s a “very fine-cut” salad.) Snir acknowledges that he knows Israeli audiences but not those in New York. He can rely on his homeland viewers to understand what the characters are going through, but there were initial doubts that the novel could be adapted for theatergoers from outside Israel. (There have been inquiries from places like Poland, Germany, and England about translation and production rights.) It doesn’t help that the supertitles are either on the far sides of the proscenium or at the top of the arch so that you can either read the dialogue (which zips by pretty fast in the titles, handled by Tami Rubin and Omer Strass) or watch the actors—but not both. (At While I Was Waiting, the titles were halfway up the two-level platform that was the back part of the set—that is, right over the heads of the actors on the stage or below the feet of the ones on the upper level—perfectly placed to watch and read.)
In part, the play’s an odd love story among Ora (Efrat Ben Zur), Avram (Dror Keren), and Ilan (Amnon Wolf) that takes place during three wars. The three main characters meet in a hospital in 1967 at the age of 16, in the midst of the Six Day War. (They’re not war casualties; they’re all suffering from a life-threatening fever. They even compete over who has the highest temperature—making a game of their own potential death!) This random meeting ties them together and shapes their fate, in light of the fragility and anxiety of Israeli existence. (This aspect of the play is a little like Design for Living with war and psychological damage.)
The plot then zips through some years to Yom Kippur 1973 (the Yom Kippur War, when Golda Meir was caught napping and almost lost to the Egyptian army). Avram, who’d be 22 by then, was in the army and was captured and tortured; we see the consequences of that in the rest of the play, which moves into 2006 and the Second Lebanon War, in which Ora’s son Ofer (Daniel Sabbag) is now a soldier. This is the crux of the play.
Ora’d been planning a hiking trip in the Galilee (“the end of the land” of Israel) with her son to celebrate the end of his enlistment. Then the day after he’s released from his military service, Ofer gets a call from his unit to tell him there’s an emergency brewing on the Lebanese border and he volunteers to go back. Now, in real life—a fact revealed in program notes—Grossman’s youngest son, a tanker, was killed just hours before the cease-fire with Lebanon, while the writer was finishing the novel. In the play, Ora decides to go off to Galilee anyway, believing that if she can’t be reached to receive the “notification” of Ofer’s death, he’ll be safe. (Ironically, the Galilee is on the border with Lebanon, right where the military emergency to which Ofer’s rushing is underway.) She hires a cab driver, a Palestinian named Sami (Guy Messika), and makes Avram, who’s Ofer’s father, go with her. (Ora directs Sami, “Drive to where the land ends.” The driver responds, “For me, it ended a long time ago.”) Avram’s still damaged from the experiences in 1973, which he relives in a gruesome flashback. Over several days and nights, as they hike along the Israel National Trail, doing the only thing she can think of to protect her son, Ora recounts Ofer’s life story as if that will keep them both safe from the dreaded “notifiers.” As if in a split-screen film scene, we see Ofer and his unitmates as they prepare for possible combat on the Lebanese border, singing and joking—as well as expressing fear for what they know may come.
This is what the play’s really about—the woman fleeing the tidings, “evil tidings, that is; that awful knock at the door, the ‘tidings’ etched on the serried ranks of military gravestones that punctuate our wars,” in Helen Kaye’s words—though it takes half of act one to get to it (and it doesn’t get going until act two). The obsessive actions Ora takes to “protect” her son are really (though the play doesn’t use this term) magical thinking.
Though Grossman’s son was killed in that same war, it isn’t clear what Ofer’s fate is—though the sense I got is that he survives. But that’s not really relevant—its the effect of constant warfare on Ora and her companions (Ilan is off on a hiking trip of his own with their son Adam—not a character in the play—in Peru). At one point, Ora loses it when she hears that a bomber has killed people in Tel Aviv and that he’d passed through her son’s checkpoint without being detected. She’s glad that he didn’t blow himself up at the checkpoint instead, but Ofer insists that it’s his mission to have the bomb go off at the checkpoint rather than in the city. This notion makes Ora crazy.
In my report on While I Was Waiting, I said that that play was about how Syrians living in Damascus in the midst of that civil war try to live normal lives in the face of the violence, destruction, and personal grief. Coincidentally, To the End of the Land is also about the herculean, not to say sisyphean, struggle to keep the fragile bonds of family together in the face of what Snir calls “a reality of existential uncertainty”: the constant violence and terror which threaten to be “the end of the land” of Israel in a different sense. At the same time, the play shows the beauty and warmth of Israeli reality for, as Grossman explains, much of the story takes place “in nature,” in the “stillness and beauty” of northernmost Israel. In the play, Ora and Avram meet a group of cult-like ascetics who befriend and comfort them.
David Grossman, a native Jerusalemite born in 1954, is a former child actor on Israeli radio and an outspoken left-wing peace activist. He believes that working with the Palestinians is the only route to peace. He’s written nine internationally acclaimed novels, five works of nonfiction, and a short story collection, as well as more than a dozen children’s books, a children’s opera, several poems, and a play. His books have been translated into more than 35 languages. Of his approach to writing, he says: “I experience writing like the removal of layer after layer of a cataract which prevents me from seeing the story I’m writing clearly.”
Grossman’s received numerous awards, including the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France), Prix Eliette von Karajan (Austria), Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation (United Kingdom), Buxtehuder Bulle (Germany), Sapir Prize (Israel), Premio per la Pace e l’Azione Umanitaria 2006 (Italy), Onorificenza della Stella Solidarita Italiana 2007, Premio Ischia – International Award for Journalism 2007 (Italy), EMET Award 2007 (Israel), and the Albatros Prize (Günter Grass Foundation, Germany). He also received the Peace Prize of the German Booksellers Association in Frankfurt in 2010, France’s Prix Medicis for translated literature in 2011, and the Brenner Prize (Israel) in 2012. The 2010 English translation of To the End of the Land was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award; in 2013 he received the French Point Award for Land and the Italian Fundazione Calcari for Lifetime Achievement. His latest novel, A Horse Walks into a Bar (2017), recently won the Man Booker International Prize for the year’s best fiction in translation (U.K.) and has been adapted for the stage at the Cameri Theatre, directed by Dror Keren (also one of the adapters), who appears as Avram in Land.
Hanan Snir, born in 1943 in Tel Aviv (then within British Mandatory Palestine), is a graduate of the department of theater arts at Tel Aviv University and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. He was a trainee director at the Royal Shakespeare Company under Peter Brook (1970) and directed at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (1970–72). In Israel, Snir was a resident director at the Beer Sheva Municipal Theater (1972–74) and associate director of the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv (1977–82); since 1984, he’s been associate director at the Ha’Bima National Theatre, where he was artistic director from 1992–93. Snir’s received numerous awards for his productions, including the Israel Theater Life Achievement Award in 2015. He received the Israeli Academy Prize for Best Production, Best Director, and Best Translator in 2007 for Sophocles’ Antigone, and won Best Play and Best Director in 2015 for Tadeusz Słobodzianek’s Our Class. In May 2017 he won Best Director and Best Playwright for his stage adaptation of To the End of the Land at the Israel Theater Prizes. The stage director is also a certified psychotherapist and holds a diploma in family therapy, psychodrama, and cognitive behavioral therapy, and a master’s degree in counseling psychology from Boston University.
Snir began working on his adaptation of Land in the summer of 2014 when he was in London for a gig. When he first read the novel, he was “unable to put the book down,” but was daunted by the challenge of adapting it for the stage. It took him “about two years to digest” the book, he said. While he was abroad, Israel launched a military operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip and “the ground operation and the first casualties” drove the director into “a flurry of writing.” He also identified very strongly with the central characters:
I liked the book very much, the three main characters are people who are my age, so I know what the period is like. I was in that world too, I knew the characters, the circumstances and felt I could really understand it and have empathy towards them.
While Grossman didn’t collaborate on the writing of the script, he did approve of the finished version and attended the dress rehearsal and has since seen about half dozen performances. (He attended the opening performance of the Lincoln Center Festival run.) The novel covers 630 pages (575 pages in Jessica Cohen’s English rendering) and over 50 years of the lives of the three main characters. Reducing it to a 2½-hour, two-act play, Snir decided to concentrate on “the triangle between Ora and the men in her life, Avram and Ilan,” leaving out the “numerous characters and subplots” and the early scenes of the three characters’ childhoods.
Snir also saw that he couldn’t reproduce on the stage a realistic representation of all the locales in the novel, particularly the outdoor scenes, and turned to what he calls “story theater.” In Snir’s application of the term, this technique has little to do with Viola Spolin’s improvised staging of fairytales and fables, made popular by the work of her son, Paul Sills, in the 1960s, but more closely resembles Bertolt Brecht’s “epic theater”: “It does not attempt to delude the audience into thinking that this is a realistic, ‘well constructed’ play . . . but emphasizes the fact that it is a theater performance and all its elements are exposed to the audience.”
This includes occasional direct address to the audience from the edge of the stage and musical interludes composed by Ori Vidislavski (members of the cast play drums, guitar, harmonica, and accordion) that have a klezmer-ish sound. The scenes of Land on stage don’t transition by cause-and-effect, the way a realistic, well-made play is structured. The leaping about in time obviates this logic, so, in Snir’s words, “It is sometimes rapid, associative, or contrapuntal in order to heighten the dramatic tension.”
Snir’s “story theater” works pretty well for the most part, especially in the shorter and more conventionally-staged scenes. But I found the longer outdoor sequences ultimately repetitive as Ora and Avram circle and circle the center of the set trying to convey obsessive movement along the trail. The pace of the hikers varies some, but the circling still just goes round and round. (The play’s movement is credited to Miri Lazar.)
The acting in Snir’s To the End of the Land is essentially realistic—high-pitched and psychologically heightened, but not stylized—but Roni Toren’s set (brightly lit by Roni Cohen) is nothing but a three-sided white box that’s almost doorless. (There’s one large double door, like one to a hospital ward, on the stage right wall and several hidden entrances on all three walls.) The props are mostly some chairs and a table that get moved about to be used for different things (like Sami’s cab), a couple of hospital beds (for the first scenes), and some doors that actors carry on and off now and then. These aren’t used as entrances or exits; they’re just symbolic objects which I decided were visualizations of the door Ora doesn’t want someone to knock on to bring her the news of Ofer’s death. (I don’t know if that’s right, but that’s what I figured.) The simple but straightforward costumes, from military combat uniforms for Ofer and his comrades-in-arms to religious robes for the ascetics, are by Polina Adamov.
To stand in for the natural beauty of northern Israel, which isn’t depicted literally on stage, though the novelist’s “picturesque descriptions of nature and the landscape are rich and wonderful in their beauty,” according to Snir, the director has the actors place some large rocks around the center of the stage and the actors who play the solders and cult members turn to the white wall and draw child-like pencil representations of the Galilean hills.
While Ben Zur’s Ora is clearly the focal character of the stage version of To the End of the Land, the play functions essentially as a four-character ensemble with eight extras, most of whom do double duty as musicians. Ben Zur’s a very strong presence on stage, which isn’t to say the character’s always in charge of either her own situation or the goings-on around her—but she’s never anything less than totally committed, both the character and the actress. In her trek through the Galilee, she leads Avram in what begins to seem like a frantic effort to lose herself—literally. Wolf’s Ilan, who has less stage time than the other two members of the triangle (since the character’s abroad, Ilan only appears in the flashback scenes), is the closest thing to a grown-up in the central foursome. Ilan accepts Ora’s affair with Avram and, when Avram refuses to be part of Ofer’s life, Ilan steps up; but Wolf exudes an air of troubled resignation. Keren is mercurial as Avram, ranging from a very young 16-year-old in the hospital to a nearly out-of-control damaged warrior on the Israel National Trail.
All three of these middle-aged actors give portrayals of a trio of oddly naïve teens in the play’s first scenes, behaving almost like 10-year-olds rather than 16, but that’s largely due—perhaps intentionally—to Snir’s script and directing than just Ben Zur’s, Wolf’s, and Keren’s acting. In contrast, Daniel Sabbag is all adolescent bluster and ego as the young soldier who revels with his buddies in the camaraderie of army life and the adrenaline high of potential combat. (One wonders if Avram had felt this way in 1973 before he faced Anwar Al Sadat’s Egyptian army.) When Ofer’s on the phone with his unit, you can see his excitement to rejoin them even as his mother is packing for the hiking trip. It’s clearly more than patriotism that’s driving Sabbag’s Ofer—it’s the chance to howl with his fellows in a world without his mother. (I confess, in my own military service, I never quite felt that impulse—but I had peers who did. I recognize it, but didn’t experience it first-hand.) This is clearly acted out in the scenes of impromptu singing and dancing in which Ofer and his band of brothers (and sisters) engage.
Land works better, at least for those of us who don’t speak Hebrew and don’t know the novel, on an emotional level than on a narrative one. (A lot of the audience around me was speaking Hebrew so I gather that many Israelis were in attendance.) The emotions and psychological states of the main characters are not only the real point of Snir’s adaptation—a hallmark of both Grossman’s writing and Snir‘s directing is reported to be an unstinting portrayal of emotional anguish—but they’re the core of the performance as well. This isn’t surprising when we hear Snir confess that after rereading the novel as 2014’s Operation Protective Edge unfolded in Gaza, “I felt very emotional about it.” We need the outline of the story to generate the emotions and so that they make some sense, but it’s the feelings that matter here, not the story. That’s especially true of Ora, but also of Avram and Ilan—and even, to lesser extent, of Ofer—who’s really a catalyst. He’s also the connector among Ora, Avram, and Ilan, the living embodiment of their childhood connection: he’s Ora’s and Avram’s son, and Ilan (who was married to Ora) looks on him as his son as well.
As with While I Was Waiting, the press coverage of To the End of the Land was slight. (In this case, part of the issue might have been the protest and call for boycott. I don’t know how many critical outlets might have been deterred by the political controversy, which got more press attention than the performance. I found it odd, though, that the New York Daily News and websites Broadway World and Stage Buddy carried related stories—the News and Broadway World both reported on the protest and Stage Buddy interviewed Snir—but didn’t carry reviews.) Once again, there’s also no Show-Score tally for Land. I’ll be reporting on four New York notices (there are some reviews on line for the Tel Aviv performances), and I’ll recap Helen Kaye’s Jerusalem Post notice from 2016.
The Forward (formerly the Jewish Daily Forward) ran two articles on To the End of the Land, both essentially reviews (while covering other aspects of the event as well). In one, Talya Zax, the Forward’s culture fellow, saw the play as “a microcosm of Israel as it is: Devoid of—and even ambivalent towards—a once-desired peace, struggling for internal cohesion, and demanding extraordinary physical, emotional, and ethical sacrifices from its citizens, Jewish and Arab alike.” Quoting Snir, Zax reported the director-adapter felt, “Israel is living on many, many layers of trauma,” and added: “Those layers appeared onstage in surprising ways.” She noted that there are scenes of “rare theatrical choice that [evoke] real wonder” that are also “heartbreaking” and others that “became alarmingly hectic.”
In the other Forward piece, Jane Eisner, the paper’s editor-in-chief, acknowledged, “I approached seeing the theatrical adaptation of David Grossman’s brilliant, disturbing novel ‘To the End of the Land’ last night with some trepidation” due to the “long list of notable but misguided literary types” who’d called for its withdrawal. The protest being unsuccessful, Eisner “was forced to confront the deep, haunting, indeed primal fear of a Jewish mother facing the loss of a beloved child” which “somehow . . . seemed more piercing in the play, dominant and unrelenting,” than in the novel. Eisner, a self-professed “Jewish mother” herself, found this “all the more remarkable because the play was written and directed by men.” Ben Zur’s Ora “holds the stage like she holds your heart, in a tight almost suffocating grasp that gets at every raw emotion a mother feels and expresses. She is at once loving, confounding, infuriating, pitiable, caring and self-absorbed, but she is not irrational.” Noting that the original Hebrew title focuses the story on Ora, the Forward editor proclaimed that “seeing the play last night affirmed my sense that the story is Ora’s story.” In answer to the protesters, Eisner insisted that novelist Grossman “is . . . a fierce anti-war activist in the Israeli political context” and “his characters speak to a human condition that extends beyond the specific conflict in the Middle East to all mothers whose children face existential danger.” She added: “Or should I say, all parents,” noting the writer’s own loss. “Even if he had tried to flee,” concluded Eisner, “he could not have escaped the b’sorah [‘notification,’ ‘tidings’]. Neither, in the end, can any of us.”
Alexis Soloski noted in the New York Times that Grossman’s novel “is a work of realism, but it has a hallucinatory quality marked by intensity of feeling and complicated shifts in time” and pointed out that “Snir’s adaptation feels feverish, too.” The stage adaptation of To the End of the Land “has a sanitary, all-white setting, but no ice-bath descriptive prose to cool down the story.” Soloski reported, “The first act is particularly frantic, yet its most striking moments are its quietest.” Complaining, as I did, that “the positioning of the supertitles means that non-Hebrew speakers must ignore either the acting or the translation,” the Times reviewer warned, “The story will remain somewhat opaque to those who haven’t read the book or at least a summary.” In the other hand, “More legible were the emotional complexities of the characters.” Soloski caviled, “The play moves swiftly, if not always deftly” as the writer and the director-adapter “nest Ora’s struggles in their fraught and pessimistic context, made even a little more fraught, perhaps, by the controversy surrounding the production.”
Dubbing To the End of the Land part of “a mini-trend” of “[f]amilies at war . . . at this Lincoln Center Festival” on the Huffington Post, David Finkle described the relationship among the three central characters as “a romance that’s also a bromance.” (Whereas I invoked Noël Coward’s Design for Living as a template, Finkle compared this part of Land to “a spin on Henri-Pierre Roché’s Jules et Jim, which Francois Truffaut stunningly translated to the screen.”) The HP reviewer observed that Snir “is intent on his work being absorbed as storytelling rather than as a play” and found that the “story theater” “notion works most of the time,” especially “when Ben Zur, Keren and Wolf are lending every ounce of their intense talents to Ora, Avram and Ilan.” Finkle added: “The anguish they expend in the two-act piece is extraordinary.” “[Ev]ery once in a while,” the review-writer lamented, “Snir’s storytelling, as opposed to Grossman’s, becomes repetitive,” citing the same circular trekking that I did earlier. Complaining also about the “the musical interludes,” which he said sometimes “become a mite overenthusiastic,” Finkle admonished, “Story Theater should always be once-upon-a-time smooth, never twee.” Nonetheless, in the end, he concluded that
when the last sprint has been concluded, the way in which war exacerbates the already complex quality of love and the teasing, taunting and trashing of family life is movingly, possibly even memorably rendered.
On New York Theater, Jonathan Mandell reported of To the End of the Land, in which “the lives of the three main characters . . . are less defined by love than by war,” that adapter Snir “chops this story into pieces, and presents the pieces in an order that makes it more dramatic, and at times less than clear.” Mandell added that Snir “also spices [the production] with an anti-naturalistic theatricality . . . using minimal props, [the actors’] own bodies, and occasional musical instruments.” Though the addresses to the audience seem “attempts to help the audience . . ., the play often feels geared to people who’ve read the novel,” the New York Theater reviewer found. In the end, however, Mandell judged that “there are enough moments in ‘To The End of the Land’ that hit hard enough to compensate for the confusion.”
As I noted at the top of this report, I was prompted to see To the End of the Land by the review from the Jerusalem Post written by my friend Helen Kaye. Though I posted the 14 March 2016 notice on ROT last September, I feel it’s appropriate to capsulize it here as well. Given that Helen’s an Israeli and writes for an Israeli reader, she saw the play a little differently than I could. To the Edge of the Land (as I pointed out she called the play in English) “explains us to ourselves but it’s also the portrait of us that the world doesn’t see,” she asserted. She continued:
For a few years now we’ve been uneasy about ourselves, about where we’re going, about what we’re doing to ourselves (and to others), as a people, as a nation. As a people, as a nation, we’ve tried to reconcile lives that are lived on the edge of an abyss; to live normally in the fractious spaces between the endless wars.
Our theater reflects this existential dis-ease.
“Ben Zur, Wolf and Keren drive the play,” Helen affirmed. “Watching them, I had to remember to breathe. Had to stop myself from racing up there to comfort them, to encourage them, to hear and listen.” Snir (of whom Helen declared in an e-mail quite simply: “Hanan Snir is a genius”) “always coaxes from his actors more than they realize is in them.” Ora and Avram’s trek through the Galilee, emphasized Helen, “is the story of the ties that bind, that heal, that destroy, the ties of love, of pain, of joys and fears among and for us and the bruised, beautiful, laden land in which we live.”
I think it’s obvious why I’d be impelled to see Land when I found out it was coming here. Helen’s review betrays how moved she clearly was. I’d never be able to see the play the way she did, of course—just as I couldn’t experience it the way Jane Eisner, a self-proclaimed Jewish mother, experienced it. (Even though Eisner made a sop to fathers, I’m not a parent at all.) But I could conceivably see what communicated those feelings, the performances, the staging, the writing, the theatricality. Even though the veil of the translation, I could glimpse these aspects of theater that said those things to Helen (and Eisner). How could I not give it try?
[A personal note: I went through a vaguely similar situation to Ora’s with my own mother 48 years ago. She never went walk-about to become a “notification refusenik,” as Ora calls herself in To the End of the Land, but she made “bargains”—some overt, some silent, and some expressed as jokes—to keep me alive.
[I went into the army in December 1969, as some ROTters will know by now, while the war in Vietnam was still raging. (The Mylai massacre was revealed less than a month before I reported for active duty.) I wouldn’t be available for overseas duty for several months at least, but my minimum contractual commitment was for two years and there was no indication at the time that the war would end by then. Indeed, it was a common expression in those years to refer to an impossible outcome for any endeavor as “like asking for peace in Vietnam,” where the military conflict had been going on since 1949. It had been 15 years since the United States took over the support of South Vietnam and five since U.S. troops were committed to combat after the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
[Things worked out fortuitously for me, as it turned out. I was in one kind of training program or another until 1971 before I was assigned to West Berlin for what was on paper a three-year tour. The policy when I got to my new post, however, was for officers to serve 18 months in Europe and then be sent home for leave before transfer to Southeast Asia. I fully expected that to happen to me as it had for my first boss in Berlin within a few months of my arrival. But on 27 January 1973, almost exactly a year-and-a-half after I took up my duties in West Berlin, the parties to the war in Southeast Asia signed a cease-fire at Versailles. I ended up doing the rest of my military service fighting the cold war in Europe rather than the hot one in Asia. I served almost five years in the army, but I never saw combat. Much to my mother’s relief—though she suffered more than few frights in my behalf nonetheless. It was easy for me to see myself in Ofer’s place and my mom in Ora’s.]