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Although the name of Hanoch Levin is not familiar to the Chinese population as a whole, large swathes nonetheless embraced this Israeli playwright's work over the past week. His Hebrew-language play Requiem not only captivated imaginations with its poetic analysis of death, but also inspired with its great music, innovative stage-work and costume design.
Somewhere in a village, in a far-off region in a big country, there lived an old couple. They fall sick and die, full of regret for the life that they had lived.
A young mother wanders through a field carrying her dying baby, in search of his cure. The baby later dies.
A wagon driver, bereft of his son, transports drunkards, whores and the elderly, but has no-one to whom he can pour out his heart.
Angels pass by, gathering up the souls of the dead and sending them to where they belong. In the meantime, birds and trees continue to simply exist, while the sun and the moon continue their infinite journeys.
Written and directed by late Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin, and based on three stories by Chekhov, Requiem really is a mass of death. However, to Dana Blei, who plays the role of angel, death is not actually the theme of this play.
"No. It's about life. It's about human beings. It's about the things we love and the way we choose to live, the things we want to do and didn't get to do."
Indeed, renowned Israeli actor Josef Carmon talks with similar sentiments about his role in this play, which was brought to Beijing last week for a second round of shows.
"This is a very old man and a very poor man. He doesn't have children, no one in the world except his wife which she's older than him and poorer than him. And she's going to die and suddenly he realized that he's going to be alone in the world. Nobody's going to be with him. He's very upset for this. He asked her not to die not to leave him alone. Unfortunately this cannot happen and she dies. And he suddenly sees the world around him, his very near neighborhood that all through his 70 years and he hadn't see it. He didn't see life. He didn't see what life can be to people and how everything's so beautiful. Suddenly he sees trees and sheep and he's very upset because when his wife dies everything dies for him. So he's calling to the world: Why you cut the trees and forests? Why don't we have sheep in the fields. Why didn't I give my wife all the years a little hug. He's asking himself why did it happen so? He didn't had the answer because it is too late. It's a story about people who missed their life. They could have lived a happier life but they missed their life."
Requiem's playwright and director, Hanoch Levin, was an iconic figure during his life. Indeed, he was Israel's most esteemed playwright. All of his plays are rooted in Israeli society, yet they carry a universal message which transcends the confines of locality. Death, whether physical or spiritual, frequently occurs within Levin's creative world, as does torture and humiliation. Gloomy subject matter without a doubt, yet this playwright also possessed a terrifically poetic style, which reached its peak with Requiem, at a time when he realized that his own death was fast approaching. Actress Irit Bashan provides further details on the life of Levin.
"He died at 57. He wrote 56 plays. His life is very futile. He started as a satirical playwright. He wrote a lot of his writings about death since the beginning. Because if you can remember you can end your life one day, then you'll appreciate more about what you have as long as you are. I think that's what he's busy about what is the meaning of life, can you leave somebody you love, can you live after somebody you love dies. It's like he's searching for the central core of life¡ªWhat is life, what is the engine that keeps you going."
Requiem is a poetic, heavy play, replete with symbolism and expressive images. Upon its broad stage, everything has meaning, whether that thing be a bird, tree, snowfall, rose petal, or stilt-walker. In fact, in keeping with an emphasis on everything having meaning, many of the show's props are played by actual people. Actress Irit Bashan is one such 'live' background piece.
"I'm very tall. I get all the tall parts of being a moon and being a bird. We're the Nature who's indifferent to man's fate. The Nature you know, people die there, people suffer. People are happy. The Moon goes, The Sun goes. The bird flies away. It's like Nature is very very indifferent to all this. It's a meditative role. The play starts and the birds passing the sky and every suffer and every death occurs. Then she goes and the curtain of the night and the stars. It's very smart because it has life as a routine. It never holds for anybody's suffer. Life goes on. Cherish it and hold it. That's why it's said about life. It's about appreciating what you have as long as you can enjoy it."
Requiem was brought to Beijing by the Cameri Theatre of Te-Aviv, one of the most influential theaters in Israel. Its five-days' performances in Beijing was greatly appreciated by local playgoers, who relied on the assistance of Chinese subtitles for Requiem, a play which is acted in ancient Hebrew. On the first night, many famous Chinese directors, playwrights, actors and critics from the world of drama also gathered in the aisles. However, maybe this comment from an ordinary member of public is the most representative view of all.
"The setting and the performance props are very unique. The stage props were all played by human beings. It's so simple yet so impressive. I'm especially impressed by the performance of the old man. He presented his part with such strong emotional power that I was deeply stirred. "
Furthermore, as well as enjoying the artistic value of this Israeli import, we hope that we can also derive some knowledge from its viewing - namely that we should cherish life and appreciate what we have, while we have it.
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