Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 2006
For it would seem that we write not with the fingers, but with the whole person. The nerve which controls the pen winds itself about every fiber of our being, threads the heart, pierces the liver. – Virginia Woolf
Seeing Via Dolorosa made me think a great deal about what it is to be a writer – how we feel compelled to express ourselves as we encounter the world – even if no one is listening. As a result, I felt called to quote from several different sources – the playwright, the author, the director, the actor, Jonathan Epstein, who plays the playwright, and many others – in support of what I felt.
Let us begin with the quotation British playwright Sir David Hare (1947- ) uses at the start of Acting Up (1999, Faber & Faber), his diary about performing Via Dolorosa:
Anyone who does not lose his reason over certain things has no reason. – Gotthold Lessing.
A literal translation of the words Via Dolorosa would be Way of Grief. In Jerusalem, it is a road, supposedly the route Jesus walked on his way to his crucifixion at Calvary. Along it are nine of the fourteen stations of the cross, and therefore it is a site of Christian pilgrimage.
In November of 1997 Hare traveled to Israel and Palestine at the request of Elyse Dodgson, the director of the International Department at London’s Royal Court Theatre. Landing in Tel Aviv, he traveled to Ramallah, Jaffa, the Sheri Tikva Israeli settlement, Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. Dodgson had hoped that Hare would become one of three playwrights – one British, one Israeli and one Palestinian – to write plays about the period of the British Mandate in the 1930’s and 1940’s, but upon his return he wrote a monologue about his experiences entitled Via Dolorosa which he himself performed the following year at the Royal Court.
It is this piece that is being presented at the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s Unicorn Theatre, with Epstein playing Hare, and the thirty-odd other people Hare encounters on his journey – translators, British consulate officials, Israeli and Palestinian citizens and politicians and artists, and airport personnel.
It is not often that a playwright gets up on stage and performs. It is not often that an actor gets to play the author whose words s/he is speaking.
I have never seen Epstein do anything badly, so I never questioned whether he, as an American Jew, could perform this piece well. Of course he can, and he does.
“I’m playing an imagined version of Hare,” Epstein said in recent interview with Jeffrey Borak of the Berkshire Eagle. “I’m not doing an imitation of him. It’s as if he were an archetype — Englishman, playwright, atheistic Anglican, observer, middle-aged — rather than an individual.”
You know that you are not seeing David Hare. If you want to, PBS filmed Hare’s performance in 1999 and I would refer you to their excellent Web site as a source of further information on the show, along with the aforementioned diary.
You are not seeing David Hare, but you are hearing him. And you are hearing him interpreted by one of the finest actors working in the Berkshires. An award-winning playwright presented by an award-winning actor. Via Dolorosa is very fine theatre and I encourage you to go. I saw the show during its brief Labor Day weekend run, but it will return to the Unicorn Stage on September 29 and run through October 21. Playing at a time of year when there is not too much competition for audience attention, and clocking in at a manageable 90 minutes, you really have no excuse not to go and listen to what Hare had to say about the situation on the Middle East nearly a decade ago.
It is nearly impossible to describe to someone who is not called to write how urgent that call is. We writers MUST write about our experiences, our thoughts, our dreams, because we are convinced that if we do, and if we do it well, then what we say will matter. We really believe that the written word can effect change. We are pitifully naïve in this regard, but that doesn’t stop us. We must communicate.
“Oh if only I could write!” she cried (for she had the odd conceit of those who write that words written are shared.) – Virginia Woolf, Orlando
This urgency is evident throughout Via Dolorosa. Hare traveled with a notebook and a pen and wrote everything down. He went with the passion to listen and learn and then to create so that he could pass his experience on to others. Except that Hare found more questions than he did answers.
Early in Via Dolorosa, Hare writes: “I realize(d), almost without noticing, that for some time my subject as a playwright has been faith. My subject is belief.”
But belief is something we take fairly casually in Western culture. Here and in Britain, the faith you proclaim does not have an impact on how and where you can live and who your friends are unless you want it to. In the Middle East Hare discovered that you are not free to keep your faith private, that you must declare it, and that that declaration will have a direct impact on your day-to-day life.
Director Anders Cato had this to say about Via Dolorosa in the Berkshire Eagle: “There are underlying questions of faith in this play — stones versus ideas…What Hare was looking for in his trip was to achieve some understanding about himself and his own life, writing it, performing it on stage.”
Hare identified the core message of Via Dolorosa thusly: “…the subject of the play is what is it like for somebody who has, as it were, no faith or at least whose faith is never tested to go to a place where faith is absolutely everything. And so in that way I was drawing attention to the similarities between the two communities, the Palestinians and the Jews, as much as the differences between them…”
I do not know what I will say until I begin to say it. I do not know what I have said until I begin to hear it. – M. C. Richards
And so Via Dolorosa is a play written by a man whose primary urge is to communicate in writing about a subject that has fascinated him for years and an experience that moved him viscerally. The final moments of the play, as Epstein plays Hare’s description of returning home to England and his conflicting feelings about the safety and serenity it offers in exchange for the concealment and release of strong religious beliefs, are very moving.
A Chinese poet many centuries ago noticed that to re-create something in words is like being alive twice. – Frances Mayes
In creating Via Dolorosa Hare was able to come alive again to the feelings and ideas he discovered on his travels and to try the best he could to convey them to others. That is what drove him, a writer not an actor, to stand on the stage in London and New York and perform this piece. Now it is Epstein and Cato’s turn to continue Hare’s efforts. They succeed, and it is an experience worth sharing in.
Via Dolorosa runs through October 22 on the Unicorn Stage at the Berkshire Theatre Festival (413-298-5536) between Rts. 7 & 102 in Stockbridge. The show runs 90 minutes without an intermission. I would say this is suitable for adults only, unless you have high school aged teens who are deeply interested in the situation in the Middle East.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006