Reading Hebron – the controversial play at the Orange Tree Theatre

If I hadn’t been invited by my friend and relative, Henry Bell, I might have  skipped the new play at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond. Reading Hebron by the Canadian writer Jason Sherman is a dramatic, semi-documentary play about the Commission of Inquiry into the Hebron Massacre of 1994 when a jewish settler called Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Palestinians and injured at least 125 more whilst they were praying during Ramadan at the Tomb of the Patriots in Hebron, Israel.

I would have missed out though on an absorbing evening at a time when we are all thinking about the new and complex developments in the Middle East because Sherman’s play is no mere reconstruction of a judicial inquiry, it is as much a psychological study of a well-meaning, liberal-minded no-Israeli Jew, Nathan Abramowitz, who is trying to sort out his own personal and cultural problems by his own manic research into the documents, newspaper articles and books covering the subject. Like many a neurotic and confused student before him, he is brought to the verge of despair by his obsessive delving into the words of others.  The conflicting attitudes, contradictory opinions and statements and the seemingly irreconcilable differences between Israel and Palestine, Arab and Jew, Israeli and non-Israeli jews and within Nathan himself who tries to justify modern Israel’s Palestinian policies within in his liberal conscience.

Nathan (played in a passionate, earnest and flamboyant performance by David Antrobus) is haunted by the voices  – from judicial reports, from polemical  books by the likes of Naom Chomsky and Edward Said, from  a crazed and paranoid terrorist wannabe in a book shop, from his mother, well this is a Jewish play,
his ex-wife, a range of eye witnesses to the massacre, various unsuspecting consular and library officials and his own frenzied conscience. All these  and many more are handled with dizzy-making changes of character by just four very hard-worked actors (Ben Nathan, Peter Guinness, Amber Agha and Esther Ruth Elliott) who are directed by Sam Walters who obviously relishes his escape from this theatre’s admirable recent Shavian tradition.

Jason Sherman’s play is a wizardly galop through the themes, prejudices, beliefs and horrors of the Israel-Palestine conflict and, apart from the rather thread-bare and now rather obvious American TV quiz pastiche that forms the centre-fold of this long one-acter, I was caried along on the crest of his energy even if I cringed at moments when he romps just a little too far at the orthodox seder (Passover dinner) but – what do I know – jews do tell the best Jewish jokes and Sherman’s play is as funny as it is moving.

 I will take this ingenious digest with me whilst I try to unravel what is going on in the Middle East as I am writing this. A few angry members of the audience left without clapping at the end which made me think that the theatre is far from dead.

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