MIAF: Via Dolorosa ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

MIAF: Via Dolorosa

Melbourne International Arts Festival: Via Dolorosa, written and performed by David Hare, directed by Stephen Daldry, Athenaeum Theatre.

I had a number of difficulties with David Hare's Via Dolorosa, but a principle problem was that I became bored. About half an hour before Sir David ended his whistle-stop tour of Israel and Palestine, I was obsessively longing for a coffee. With renewed alertness, I noted that he had reached his last interview; perhaps that was it. No, he had to get on the plane. And off the plane. And catch the train from Gatwick to Victoria. And then a Black Cab. A couple of flashback quotes... And then turn right, and right again... His dog, of course. The front door. A final, telling reflection...

Well, that coffee was pretty damn good by the time I got to it. I wondered if my coffee compulsion was a kind of Pavlovian response: I like caffeine with my Sunday newspaper. What I was listening to was the kind of thing that is published on weekends in quality English broadsheets (Via Dolorosa was, in fact, excerpted in The Guardian): erudite, intelligent, self aware, sceptical, leavened with an ironic if empathetic eye and a deprecating wit. Quintessentially English liberal bourgeois. Bourgeois that knows it's bourgeois, dammit; hence the deprecation.

Via Dolorosa recounts a visit to Israel that Hare made in 1997, when his play, Amy's View, was presented in Tel Aviv. His visit was also prompted by deeper reasons: as he says, "It is only now... that I realise, almost without noticing, that for some time my subject as a playwright has been faith. My subject is belief. And so it comes to seem appropriate - no, more than that, it comes to seem urgent - that the 50-year-old British playwright should finally visit the 50-year-old state."

What follows is a series of encounters with Palestinians and Israelis, mostly prominent people: religious Jewish settlers in Gaza; the respected head of the Palestinian Red Crescent, Haider Abdel Shafi; Menachem Begin's right wing son, Benni Begin; the Palestinian historian Albert Aghazerin; the theatre director George Ibrahim and poet Hussein Barghouti. These conversations are noted with painstaking even-handedness, and recounted with the deft lightness of a practised raconteur. And they are interesting in their own right, revealing some of the intractable, tangled contradictions that underly the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The sort of thing, as I said, which one might read with interest and attention in a broadsheet newspaper, and argue about afterwards.

A big problem with a play like this is that it dates quickly: I suspect it has lost a lot of punch by its inevitable assumption of the glaze of history. It was first performed in 1998, and the situation in the Middle East since then has grown immeasurably worse. What Hare describes seems, in comparison, almost a kind of idyll: this was when Ramallah had a "cheerful air", before it was bulldozed by the IDF.

Wisely, Hare does not attempt to act; he merely stands and speaks, assisted only by a couple of minimal lighting changes and one bizarrely kitsch moment when his visit to the Temple Mount summons a luminous gold model of the Mount to float in the dark space at the back of the stage. These things seem mere gestures towards theatre, a kind of dressing to assure us that this is, indeed, a play. I am not usually given to categorical assertions, but I was not convinced that it was a play at all.

I don't mean to limit what theatre can be to the spectacle, and personally I have a fatal attraction to the kind of show which features a spotlight, a performer and a harrowing script. Walking into the Athenaeum and seeing the naked stage bathed in a bluish light, a table with a glass of water set forestage, I thought I might be in for my sort of night. Instead, I came out with a feeling that I had just witnessed something that was tantamount to a kind of artistic death.

What David Hare presented was not anti-theatre: the Temple Mount moment exploded any sense of such a stern aesthetic. It was more a kind of un-theatre. I was more troubled by it than I expected, and not for any of the obvious reasons. It seems to me that Hare's insistence on "witness" and "reportage" is symptomatic of a wider contemporary crisis in art; ironically, given Hare's stated subject, of a loss of faith in art itself.

According to Hare, Via Dolorosa is primarily a vehicle for "enlightenment": "In fact, what I'm doing with Via Dolorosa is trying to pull theatre back to a fact-based theatre where the audience knows more when they leave than when they went in," he explains in an interview. This jostles uneasily with his disclaimer elsewhere that "theatre doesn’t work like journalism, and the suggestion that it is a form of journalism is untrue". It is hard to see that Via Dolorosa is anything but journalism, although that need not be a sneer - journalism, after all, includes writers like Martha Gellhorn and Ryszard Kapuschinski. But Hare's stated intention does beg the question: if I want some understanding of the Middle East, why am I not better off reading the reports of Robert Fisk or Juan Cole's analysis? Why would I want to go to a play?

Hare has not always been averse to making things up, although he comes out of the left wing British theatre of the 1970s and he was one of the pioneers of documentary theatre in his work with Joint Stock. His brand of politically committed work, rooted in actuality, has continued to be massively influential. Documentary theatre is currently the dominant vehicle for political dissent in British theatre; Hare's most recent play about the Iraq war, Stuff Happens, is now on in London.

Like his contemporaries Howard Brenton and Trevor Griffiths, Hare stands squarely in a broad tradition of British left wing activism which goes all the way back to before the Fabians. It's a tradition often fatally marked by the earnest belief that, with enough work, enough commitment, enough care, enough education, enough Reason, Progress will prevail. "But what is the way forward?" Hare kept asking his interviewees, with increasing plaintiveness. With the benefit of hindsight - this play was first performed in 1998 - it is clear that there has been no way forward, just an intractable locking in of conflict and bloodshed between two sides which are themselves riven by deep divisions. Hare's own Via Dolorosa is, of course, his discovery of the inadequacy of secular reason in the face of the apocalyptically irrational.

One of the ironies of Via Dolorosa is that, for all Hare's stated objectives of presenting "facts" and removing his mediating presence as author to permit his interviewees to speak for themselves, it is, in the end, a work about David Hare. But it is a Hare so conscious of his desire to be even-handed and of his status as an outsider that he speaks in chains, leaping in alarm when he dares to entertain a thought. I agree with Hare on the unimportance of opinion, but the aesthetic and morality of any artwork is much more than mere opinion. One wonders, tangentially, at what point fair-mindedness becomes moral vacillation.

Hare is scrupulously factual, working from his belief that his job is primarily to inform his audience of things they should know, in order to form a rounded moral view of the world. "Give us the facts, just the facts," he says, of a visit to the Holocaust Museum in Via Dolorosa, remarking that the art works there strike falsely in relation to the actual evidence of atrocity. It is a watered down version of Adorno's famous statement that, after Auschwitz, it is no longer possible to write lyric poetry. But unlike Adorno, who, with Hare, is speaking of the impossibility of representation in the face of atrocity, Hare's argument is full of sly libels against imagination itself.

In an interview on Via Dolorosa, Hare says: "Well, let's say it's the Jewish tradition that knowledge is as important as imagination. And so in some way I think its true that Jews traditionally distrust fiction. In other words, why make up stories when the world is already incredibly various and interesting?" Aside from the leap Hare makes from knowledge being as important as imagination to its being markedly less important, his sweeping statement about the Jewish distrust of fiction seems a little tough on writers like Franz Kafka, Saul Bellow, Andre Schwartz-Bart or Elias Canetti.

Of course, any artist can't but be aware of the essential inadequacy of art in the face of intractable experience. The political place and force of culture was one of the principle questions of the 20th century, and has perplexed much sharper minds than mine. But given art's inability to justify itself, I still wonder what point there is in making works that eschew imagination, why it is necessary to deny the complex truths that only art can communicate, as if this is the only way to restore to it an authenticity and authority to speak. It seems to me that any authenticity it gains is very often grounded in spurious perceptions, as hoaxes such as the recent Norma Khouri scandal have shown. And such supposed authenticity comes at a high cost. To deny human imagination seems a shackling of the one freedom that art can authentically offer, a capitulation in advance to the circumscribing forces of industrialised culture.

Which brings me back to my initial boredom. This is the kind of theatre people tend to like because it's recognisable and predictable: it's written in a form that is instantly familiar and challenges nothing about our processes of perception and understanding. But formal imagination is a huge part of the politics of representation, an issue Hare discusses to some extent in his work, and limiting theatre to the ethics and aesthetics of journalism is a profoundly political - and, I would say, ultimately conservative - decision. My reactions to Via Dolorosa made me think of another one-man show I saw a couple of weeks ago by a writer who was unashamedly a journalist - The Last Days of Mankind by Karl Kraus. Although it is almost a century older than Hare's play, it has the political bite, immediate relevance and experiential profundity that only imagination can confer. As Ezra Pound said of poetry, art is news that stays news.

Via Dolorosa
National Theatre: Platform Papers
To Each His Via Dolorosa, Al-Ahram
PBS interview
Arnold Wesker's open letter to David Hare

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