Tibor Egervari’s latest theatrical exploration of how anti-Semitism starts, what it does, and how it works
March 8, 2011
Audiences at the latest production of the University of Ottawa’s theatre department are in for a bit of surprise. Just before the house lights dim they will be told to turn their smart phones on and to unwrap as many noisy candies as they wish during the production they are about to see. This is no mere gimmick. During Tibor Egervari’s production of Christopher Marlowe’s deeply problematic play, The Jew of Malta, audience members are actively encouraged to tweet their observation and reactions to the play. As scene upon scene of bloody betrayal mounts up, their tweets will be flashed onto a large screen built into the set for all the audience to see. Why? “For too long the theatre has been all about control,” explains Egervari during a break in rehearsals. Using facebook in this way in a live theatre performance is also a first in Canada, he suggests.
“I want to examine how the theatre works as an institution. We instruct people to pay attention, when to be silent, when to clap, and when to go home. The result is that they learn to go along with what the theatre wants as an institution.”
Of all the plays in the western cannon, why would this hard-to-categorise play about stereotypes be the choice of a Hungarian Jew who lost many of his family members to the Shoah? Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta has a cartoon-like depiction of a money-obsessed central character, and Jew, Barabas. “I want to explore how anti-Semitism starts, what it does, and how it works,” explains this Budapest-born professor emeritus of theatre whose professional career began in one of the major regional theatres in France in the 1960s. “Activists fight. I am not an activist. I am a scholar fascinated by this beautifully written play by an important theatrical voice from hundreds of years ago who was dead by the time he was 29 years of age. This exploration is the kind of possibility that only happens in a university.”
Cell-phones are not the only thing the audience will be invited to share as they watch this play about greed and rapaciousness without a single redeeming heroic character, Jews, Christian, or Muslim. Audiences are invited to share their discomfort with what they are seeing. All the characters onstage are opportunistic, hateful, and driven by less than noble urges. “No-one escapes from it. This is also why we have added a subtitle to this play: The Ugly Face of Anti-Semitism.” explains Egervari. “This kind of theatre allows audiences to experience things that are ‘verboten’ and not feel bad about it. These characters are irresistible. Joyful as well as hateful. The whole thing is very transgressive.”
The male lead, Barabas, is played in this production by a young female theatre student from Stratford, Kiersten Hanley. “Before the show begins they will see her on stage being transformed from the beautiful young woman that she is to the hateful old Jewish man that she will portray when the action begins.” And while that’s happening audiences will also be presented with a series of slides of famous creative and influential figures from the past who also happened to be anti-Semitic. “People like Richard Wagner, Henry Ford, and other talented people who also happened to be Anti-Jewish,” notes the director. “They’ll also see images of the violent, intolerant world of Marlowe’s time, and of the history of Malta, where he set his play, and how the Christians expelled all the Turks from that island.”
Intermission offers another opportunity for serious playfulness, adds the director. “The Jews in the audience will be offered hamantaschen, the Muslims falafel, and Christians hot-cross buns,” he explains with a twinkle in his eye.
Egervari hopes that the difficult themes of the play will continue to generate reaction and dialogue in the community long after the final scene. This is why the main character, Barabas, already has a Facebook page that will include all the audience comments from each of the performances and which will be kept online until the end of the academic year. Egervari invites people to take a look at this page even if they cannot see the production.
When asked to explain where this fascination with the transgressive comes from Egervari suggests that it relates to his early experiences in Hungary, where he was born into Budapest’s Jewish community in 1938. “Such a small country, yet the lengths the Jewish community had to go to in order to survive – at least those that did. More than half of my own family did not survive the Shoah. I think that experience says something about that mix of Jewishness and cynicism that has contributed so much to the Hungarian way of thinking and what we have brought to this country.”
Tibor Egervari’s production of The Jew of Malta at the University of Ottawa’s Drama Guild runs from March 8th to 12th, 2011.
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