Does a playwright's holding forth in person for 90 minutes about journeying to Israel and the Gaza Strip sound like good theater? No? Guess again; you'll be riveted by Via Dolorosa. David Hare can observe, write, think (already rare enough in a dramatist), and also act. Not in the sense of political action -- what can an English playwright do to compel Jews and Palestinians to live in peace? -- but of being a charming actor. He can also bear witness.
Hare, who has a Jewish wife, conceived his trips to a war that calls itself peace negotiations out of both intellectual and professional curiosity. The tone is set right off: "The girl at Gatwick asks me where I am going. 'Tel Aviv,' I say, and at once she laughs. 'Lucky you,' she says and roars with laughter. Why? . . . What is the joke?" The joke, as Hare is too tactful to spell out, is that Israel is no place to go. But some essential truths are lurking or rampaging there, as in so many strife-torn parts of the world. Or in the covetous human soul, never content with what it possesses.
The author was lucky enough to be shown around everywhere and meet everyone, even if only by mistake. Thus he gets to see the most popular and reclusive politician in Gaza, Haider Abdel Shafi, who takes him for "the Guardian journalist David Hirst . . . author of a recent two-page expose." In fact, Hare knows almost nothing about Shafi. But knowing nothing helps you keep your eyes and ears -- and, above all, mind -- open.
The voyage is not only political; it's also theatrical. Hare's play Amy's View is on view there, and, as a director, he is also being consulted about a unique co-production of Romeo and Juliet in Jerusalem, eight years in the making. Co-directed by a Jew and a Palestinian, it has Jews playing the Montagues, Palestinians the Capulets. "In this production," Hare wryly notes, "the Capulets really hated the Montagues." In Israel and Gaza, art and politics inevitably get entangled. At the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars, "every single acceptance speech was about politics." An angry spectator starts a bomb scare, the hall is cleared, and, sadly, "the suspense leading up to the Best Picture was lost."
Ordinary people are reported on no less than famous ones. So Hare quotes an American settler on the difference between living in the United States and living in Israel: "Memorial Day here is a day where we all get out of our cars, wherever we are, in the middle of the road and stand for two minutes remembering the dead. In the U.S., it's a day when you have a mattress sale."
I could quote forever from a play -- and it is a play, not a lecture -- whose every other line is quotable. But you must hear it from Hare, in what he calls a monologue "ideally to be performed by its author." And ideally performed it is: with great but controlled flourishes, sparing but effective scenery, searching light effects, and subtle direction (intermittent but telling stage movement) by Stephen Daldry.
And what does it all mean? An eminent Palestinian historian, allowed to travel back and forth, is asked the two obligatory questions by the Israeli border guard: "Did you pack the bag yourself? Did anyone give you anything to carry?" Once, answering the first question, the historian adds, "And no one gave me anything to carry." The guard explodes: "How dare you? . . . You are not allowed to answer the second question until I ask it." That, the Palestinian claims, "says it all."
But nothing does. Not even page 56 of the book in which Via Dolorosa is published, where principal is published as principle. We have clearly lost our sense of what is principal, not to mention misplacing our principles. The search for them is arduous indeed, but maybe, just maybe, Hare is pointing the dolorous way.