Let Shakespeare’s play be the thing, not this protest

Op-Ed in published in The Times of London

Aversion of The Merchant of Venice will be staged in London tonight. But this one will be different. Shakespeare’s characters will speak Hebrew, his words in the mouths of actors from Habima, a theatre company set up by a small group of visionary Jews in Moscow to bring the Hebrew language back to life a century ago, and now the national theatre of Israel.

The actors are Jewish and not Jewish, Israeli-born and not Israeliborn. They will perform at the Globe in London, the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s own theatre, as part of the World Shakespeare Festival, an inspiring encounter of cultures and languages that includes companies who stage Shakespeare in forms as diverse as Shona, Maori and hip-hop.

For an Israeli theatre company to stage The Merchant, a play that is at once anti-Semitic and includes some of the most compassionate words that express Jewish suffering and humanity, is fraught with challenges. To do so is to peer deeply into discrimination and prejudice, near and far. But it is also testimony to the vibrancy, openness and discursive nature of Israeli society.

Not surprisingly, the performance is a sell-out. But some people with tickets for tonight do not have the slightest intention of watching. Rather than engage with a drama so troubling, so challenging in what it says about Jews and Jew-hatred, so astonishing in its artistry that we are still trying to unravel its ambiguities five centuries later, they are making elaborate plans to disrupt the play and the actors.

Having failed in calls for a boycott, this small group of protesters, who seem all too eager to re-enact some of the play’s characters’ worst attitudes towards Jews, intend, with their backs to the stage, to perform their own drama. Not for them the lofty ideals of cultural exchange and global understanding.

The sad irony of a protest against Israeli actors performing the most important play to address Christian society’s attitude towards Jews, is almost too much to bear. One wonders if the protesters have ever bothered to read the play and ponder its meanings.

Opportunities to encounter other cultures genuinely celebrating Shakespeare’s universality should not be squandered. Let tonight’s performance be on stage, not in the audience. Let it not be that in the Globe, in the world capital of theatre, in a global cultural exchange, there will be those who stand with their backs to the play. Shakespeare wanted his audience to watch the play – and to learn its lessons.