August 29, 2018

There are more things in Heaven and Earth

Hamlet: What hour now?

Horatio: I think it lacks of twelve.

Where are we?  London’s Globe Theatre?  The Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington?  The Stratford Festival in Niagara Falls, Canada or, maybe Central Park, summer home of the popular Shakespeare in the Park.

Yet, bells jangle. A cacophony of pealing bells. If you look to your left, the walls of Jerusalem dominate the horizon with the bell towers of the Church of the Dormition. It is 6pm and the church bells of Jerusalem chime. The evening brings a delicious fresh breeze to the Bloomfield Gardens tucked between the King David Hotel and the cobbled steps of Yemin Moshe.

Hamlet: No, it is struck.

Horatio: Indeed? I heard it not.

The audience laughs, for indeed, we are hearing the bells – the timing of this line could not have been better.   

We sit outdoors in Jerusalem on a grassy slope in the Bloomfield Gardens. Shakespeare's Hamlet is being performed by Theater in the Rough.

This a moment in Israel when one thinks, where am I?  The play is by Shakespeare and most of the audience members are English speakers relishing every line. Yet this is theater that could only happen in Israel. It is free, unconstricted, flowing, informal, participatory and fun. Unlike most theaters, these audience members are not bound to a seat in a tight row. This is what the company calls 'Hamlet in Motion.'

Edward Beili
There are no rules in this theater. People bring a blanket, a lawn chair, sandwiches, a bottle of wine, their babies and some bring their dogs.

People sit for a scene and are then invited by the cast to move to yet another stunning section of the treed park. The actors are reciting lines through branches of ancient olive trees and perched atop park monuments.

Ophelia makes a dramatic entrance to her madness scene by first soaking her hair in the fountain and then tumbling down a grassy hill. The grave digger pulls out a skull from the site of an ancient tomb - some say it may be Herod’s burial place - and the audience cries out in unison, “Alas, poor Yorick!”

The actors interact with the audience as they all shift from one set to another. During one scene change, Hamlet stood helpless in the throng of people wailing in madness. 

Ophelia, after being told to ‘get thee to a nunnery,’ sat on the ground sobbing as audience members passed her by.  One woman handed over her baby, telling Ophelia it would make her feel better, while during another performance, she was given a glass of wine by a member of the audience.

When you are performing in a park, anything can and does happen. It does not ruffle the actors or the audience as everyone is in the flow. On opening night, the lawn sprinklers went off in random places right where the audience was sitting. People shrieked and quickly found another spot. Luckily, this did not happen again.

One evening, a large group on a segway tour inched right behind the actors. I am not sure who looked more surprised, the swash-buckling Hamlet and Laertes or the shocked tourists. Israel knows no boundaries or affectations so a passerby in the park may walk right beside an actor before veering down a pathway.

And the children loved it. The theater company offered a children’s workshop to prep the kids on the plot and introduce them to the actors. The children always rushed to be in the front row and were entranced. At the end of one show, many young  girls ran up to Ophelia asking for her autograph.

It was the final death scene and behind the pines where a dying Hamlet lay, a large full blood moon rose up. A woman beside me sobbed as Hamlet turned to Horatio, saying:

“So tell him, with the occurrents, more and less,
Which have solicited. The rest is silence.”

We looked down at Hamlet and gazed up at the moon.  It had popped above the church tower tucked inside the old ramparts and glowed in a silent sky.

We know that Jerusalem is alive and well when Shakespeare can be heard in the park and the church bells chime. For 600 years, the city was hushed. No church bells rang in Jerusalem and no shofars were blown as they were deemed offensive to the ruling overlords. But today in Israel, anything and everything goes. 

As Hamlet says, "There are more things in Heaven And Earth, Horatio, that are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Theater in the Rough continues to create more things, offering us Shakespeare that is innovative, fun, relevant and available to all.