Amos Gitai and the Spectator as Interpreter
There's an old Jewish saying: "Two Jews, three opinions." Now multiply that to infinity and you have entered the world of filmmaker and playwright Amos Gitai, whose subject—some might say obsession—is his homeland, Israel, and its kaleidoscope of stories drenched in contradictions: idealism and blood, intellectual rigor and religious mysticism, the optimism of youth and the weight of history. Gitai brings a seminal piece of that kaleidoscope to this year's Lincoln Center Festival (July 19, Alice Tully Hall) in the North American premiere of Yitzhak Rabin: Chronicle of an Assassination, a two-person drama that tells the story of the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin through the words of Rabin's wife, Leah, mixed with literary references, documentary film footage, and music.
It is a story that Gitai has returned to often, most notably in a sprawling 2015 feature-length docudrama, Rabin: the Last Day; in a documentary, Shalom Rabin; in a traveling exhibition; and now in this play. The fatal shooting of the prime minister as he was leaving a rally where he spoke to the crowd about his signature achievement, the Oslo peace accords, shocked a nation that prided itself on being the only liberal democracy in the Middle East.
In all of his work, Gitai does not shy away from his homeland's troubling contradictions—in particular, its identity as a refuge for victims of brutality, combined with politics and practices that have led to displacement and oppression of the Palestinians. "More than just art, my work is a way to pay back the place that I love, and that I don't always agree with. I want to raise questions. Sometimes people say, 'Do not ask these questions.' I say if you want to close your ears and your eyes, do it. But I don't think it's advisable, especially in a dangerous area."
"People have to rise up, and then we have to simply hope for the best, but also work for it."
Gitai's style revels in ambiguity as a way to both to instruct and to move: "If you manage to create a kind of a mood in any work of art, this will stay with the spectator. Then you can put political arguments and so on. But the mood—this is what will stay in your mind." The mood in Rabin: The Last Day, which was the basis for this play, catapults the viewer from suspense to profound sadness to outrage and despair. In the play, as in the film, Gitai experiments with perspective, starting with a narrow focus: the prime minister's final day through the words of his wife. Quotidian details of how he spent the morning and afternoon hours—obsessing about an eye irritation, playing tennis, taking a nap—bring Rabin's humanity to the fore, making his death that evening that much more poignant.
Leah Rabin is voiced by two Israeli actresses, Sarah Adler and Einat Weizman. In the first part of the play, they speak words from the widow's memoirs veering between past and present to convey both external and internal chaos:
Drive me to the hospital immediately.
The drive there was a nightmare.
I thought to myself: they would've told me if Yitzhak's injury was only minor. The silence was terrifying…
God, I beg you, watch over him. Watch over me…
To this deeply personal narrative, Gitai adds layers of historical perspective using documentary film footage and excerpts from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, a play that centers on another bloody assassination, and which recently made headlines when it was presented at Shakespeare in the Park.
About two-thirds of the way into Gitai's play, the perspective broadens yet again when the actresses assume the role of historians to speculate on what would have happened if the peace process had moved forward, while also representing the assassin, Yigal Amir, an ultra-orthodox Jew who believed that the peace process was a disaster for Israel and a betrayal of Judaism.
Gitai applies the widest lens at the conclusion of the play with a verse from Ecclesiastes, which begins, "There is a time for everything, a season for every activity under the heavens."
With his country now far from peace, run by a government he calls "unpleasant," Gitai believes "people have to rise up, and then we have to simply hope for the best, but also work for it." He demands that work from himself and also from his audiences: "A lot of cultural products today are tuned for consumption. You see a movie and maybe the next day, you won't even remember what it was about. I'm more interested, as a spectator to also be an interpreter, and to even have difficulty figuring out what this person wanted to tell me. It doesn't leave me in peace until I work on it. This is what I try to do. Some like it and some don't, which I think is fine."
For tickets and information, visit LincolnCenterFestival.org.
Madeline Rogers is a creative consultant to nonprofits and former Director of Publications at the New York Philharmonic.