With shows by Israeli artists cancelled at Edinburgh Festival Fringe amongst clamorous protest and current outcry here in Norway around Habima Theatre´s collaboration with Oslo´s Nationaltheatret, maybe it´s worth – on behalf of the artists themselves – considering a wider perspective. Edinburgh Festival was, after all, begun in the wake of World War 11 into a sombre world with the vision of a platform where artists of every nation could come together to build dialogue. The wish to use art as communion was deeply felt.
Days after the 9/11 bombings, I moved to America to direct the International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven, Connecticut. New Haven, with Yale University at its centre – its status rather similar to the Vatican´s in Rome – sits in Connecticut, the US´s richest state. Academia and gun-crime exist uneasily in a city the size of Bergen.
In London, I had seen an exceptional play by Al Kasaba Theatre from Ramallah. Stories under Occupation achingly described the daily lives of ordinary people caught amongst curfews, racial divisions and violence, and the role that the media plays in disseminating – and perpetuating – misunderstanding. Stories is not veiled activism or rabble-rousing. It could be about Ireland or Kosovo. It is dark, sad, funny and powerful.
We launched it with the festival programme and Eastern America went berserk. Palestinians equalled terrorists, bullies, usurpers. The Jewish community held crisis meetings and issued vicious threats and manifestos, the New York Times ran hateful leaders, Jewish festival funders revolted, the Dean of Yale´s Law Faculty pulled out a chunk of my hair in the street. Ultimately, the FBI were summoned to performances. I learned a bitter lesson about wealthy anti-Arab self-interests in America; the ulcerous taste of human nature which cannot or will not apply its formidable intelligence to history or to forgiveness remains in my mouth to this day.
We put an immediate ‘blanket’ programme around the play, making rehearsal video available. We created a programme of debate, including the Israel Ambassador to the US, the Communications Director of the Arab League and the Anti Defamation League. We had talk-backs after each performance. The cast stood gazing at the audience, tears on their cheeks.
But also at the festival was the Israeli Inbal Pinto & Avshalom Pollak Dance Company. They looked on with bewilderment ‘What are you doing to our colleagues? they said to the press. The entire dance company sat down with all the Al Kasaba members and held hands. New Haven remained unmoved. ‘What do these young people know about the Holocaust’ they said, and turned away.
But we continued to present the play amongst demonstrations, the FBI, and chaos. And slowly things changed. There was a sense that the city held its breath. Extraordinary things began to happen. The CT Jewish Community Centre held workshops to re-examine their values. The Yale Dean became a valuable member of the festival Board.
Fast-forward to Stavanger2008, European Capital of Culture. Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak came as a resident company – a relationship with Norway which still remains. And, yes, as director I was attacked for working with Israeli artists.
So – Norwegian artists – surely the issue is not that Habima play in the occupied territories, but what they play. Bring Habima, talk to them as colleagues, learn what I hope they know, that art can heal and teach and grow our understanding. Meet them, talk to them, help them, for Heaven´s sake. Then perhaps we will no longer have to hear stories of occupation and the cries of ignorance and terror.
General and Artistic Director
Bergen National Opera
Foto: Magnus Skrede. From the rehearsals of The Cunning Little Vixen, directed by Inbal Pinto & Avshalom Pollak Dance Company.