Show Hide image

Hebron, the West Bank and the ties that bind

The City of Abraham: History Myth and Memory – a Journey Through Hebron - review.

The City of Abraham: History Myth and Memory – a Journey Through Hebron
Edward Platt
Picador, 384pp, £18.99

Edward Platt decided to write about Hebron in 2001, when he first encountered the idea that not only was land subject to conquest but its sub-terrain was, too – the history and myths written into and buried beneath the surface of the land. It changed the way he thought about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, making him want to “understand the city’s mythic history and the ways in which it continued to inform its inhabitants’ lives”. What he discovered there was that history is constantly being overwritten to fortify competing opinions.

One of the most ancient and contested cities in the West Bank, Hebron is named in Genesis as the place where Abraham settled and founded monotheism, hence its significance to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. Abraham and his wife, Sarah, are said to be buried there, along with Abraham’s sons, Ishmael, the father of the Arabs, and Isaac, whose son Jacob became the father of the Jews.

While biblical claims to the city are very old, the seemingly intractable conflict over its land began surprisingly recently. Even after Muslim armies conquered Palestine in 636 and turned the building above the tomb into a mosque, Jews and Muslims lived pretty peacefully in Hebron until as late as 1929, when 67 Jews were massacred by local Arabs and the remaining Jewish population was evacuated. Forty years later, in 1968, a group of messianic settlers moved in and the current problems began.

In his award-winning debut, Leadville (2001), a “biography” of the A40 trunk road, Platt made use of a mix of interviews, reportage and travelogue that worked brilliantly. Exported to the Occupied Territories, the same formula is less successful. Platt meanders from claim to counterclaim about past and present without shedding much light on either. So archaeologists make “narrative assumptions” and extremists use history to serve their own ideologies – tell me something new!

A deeper problem is Platt’s assertion that, being neither Jewish nor Muslim, he has a degree of neutrality that qualifies him for the task at hand. He has clearly gone to considerable lengths to interview Israelis who represent different viewpoints from those of the settlers in Hebron but he remains strangely oblivious to the cultural baggage that his observations carry with them. It’s as if the sensitive and thoughtful author of Leadville has, in Hebron, become tone-deaf to the sound of his own voice.

Why, for example, does he “expect” all Israelis to be “pugnacious”? Would he admit to an equivalent expectation about Palestinians? Did he really need to tell us that the first Jewish settler he meets has “black hairs sprouting from his nose”? And in a book crowded with voices, there is a notable area of silence: Platt does not interview a single Palestinian extremist, despite mentioning that Hebron elected nine Hamas representatives in the most recent elections and is home to three leaders of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an overtly anti-Semitic organization linked to terrorism.

Platt is entitled to his opinions and I share his antipathy towards the settlers. Yet I strongly object to insidious bias in a book that purports to be even-handed. Platt’s assertion that the British “ignored” Arab concerns about Jewish immigration to Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s is simply untrue. The Mandate government imposed increasingly severe limits on immigration during this period in direct response to Arab outrage.

It’s hard to evaluate many of Platt’s quotations (there are no footnotes or references) and harder still, in the absence of any statistics, to locate the settlers in the wider context of Israeli society. You will dislike them more after reading this book but be none the wiser about them.

The strongest section by far is the one in which former Israeli soldiers describe the brutalising effects of serving in the West Bank. They seem willing to articulate the tensions between personal and national identity that bedevil both Israelis and Palestinians. As Platt concludes, the tragedy of Hebron lies not in its mythic history but in entrenched ideologies that make the possibility of coexistence increasingly remote, while at the same time “binding together, ever tighter . . . the children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael”.

Rebecca Abrams’s most recent book, “Touching Distance”, is soon to be published in paperback by Pan Macmillan.

You can read an extract from Edward Platt's "The City of Abraham" here

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Conservative conference special

Almeida Theatre
Show Hide image

Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.