Written and Performed by David Hare
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Booth Theatre / 222 West 45th Street / (212) 239-6200

Reviewed by David Spencer

Britain’s Royal Court Theatre, which initiated the process that yielded "Via Dolorosa" (currently presented at the Booth Theatre under the auspices of the Lincoln Center Theater), doggedly refers to it as a play. So does everyone else associated with it, including its author and star, the prolific, world-renowned dramatist David Hare, acting (he says in its text) for the first time since he was fifteen years old. And indeed, "Via Dolorosa" is so meticulously and sensitively written that—performed by anyone else—it would be a credible monodrama. But so long as Mr. Hare holds stage, one is hard-pressed to accept "play" as a term of description; for in truth, "Via Dolorosa" is a memoir delivered in a theatrical venue.

The Royal Court Theatre, jointly with theatre professionals from Israel and Palestine, originally commissioned Hare to be one of three playwrights to author pieces about the period of British Mandate rule. Continues a program note: "It is with this intention that David Hare made the first of his journeys to the area in November 1997. But while there, he established the conviction that he was more interested to write a play which would inform Western audiences about the current situation in that region than to explore a particular phase of its history."

In choosing to write it, not as a docudrama or some other form that would require fictionalization to give its storytelling shape, but rather as a "memoir theatrical" (I apologize for the tortured phrase; the more mellifluous "theatrical memoir" conjures something else entirely, to my ear), Hare has wisely—and courageously—taken his conviction to its ultimate expression. He has stripped everything that could stand between the viewer and the issue except the truth…as he experienced it, and as he sees it…which is truth enough.

Hare has entitled the piece "Via Dolorosa" because, that being the road upon which Christ traveled the seven stations of the cross, it bespoke his outsider’s perspective: that of a Christian, observing the world of the Israelis on one side, and the world of Arabs on the other—into which the world of the gentile has had almost no effect whatsoever.

As a performer, Mr. Hare is a wild mix of things that are brilliantly professional and starkly amateurish. He has found ways to implement body language—point of view shifts, head-focus changes, use of arms and hands and torso for emphasis—but nearly all the time you can sense the labor that went into the choices; the labor of a man used to observing other performers, suddenly and (perhaps) unpleasantly trying to order about this new tool—his physical being—the same way he orders words. Yet there is a determined lack of clumsiness about all this, and it seems (in one of those divinely metaphorical ways that no one can plan) only to underscore the central character of Hare as Outsider. Conversely, Hare’s speaking voice is beautiful and resonant, at times seeming as professionally accomplished and assured as it is naturally expressive…and the balance, for "Via Dolorosa" is oddly correct. No doubt some of that has to do with director Stephen Daldry

It’s such an overused buzzphrase to say that an evening is "compelling," but Hare’s memoir is precisely that, in the most active and energized sense. For he takes a look at the two opposing worlds of the Middle East with both compassion and understanding, as his increased exposure to both sides makes him painfully aware that at the very root of the conflict, all political rhetoric to the contrary, there is no common ground for peaceful coëxistence.

With mild adjustments in attitude, tone, physicality—Hare doesn’t attempt accents or voices, trusting to the power of his odyssey for clarity—the author portrays 33 characters, besides himself, among them political leaders, American émigrés to Israel, and theatrical artists on both sides of the conflict. He reports—not unemotionally, but without bias—on what he is told about the issues as they relate to national self-image, personal self-respect, historical perspective and religious philosophy. The people we meet through his eyes are extreme, colorful, passionate, funny, driven—and in the end, heartbreaking. Sometimes they even bemoan the state of their own kinsmen. One Israeli rails against a particularly "unJewish" change that has befallen Israel since the six-day war: the preoccupation with property, with ownership. Israel used to be about ideas, he says; now it is about stones. The conflict between stones and ideas is, in fact, central to the evening.

Of late I have not been hugely impressed with the work of Mr. Hare; though I think he is enormously talented, I also think that his most recent work has been stultifyingly predictable and overwritten.

But "Via Dolorosa" suffers from none of that—it is, in fact, as compact and bracingly compressed a piece of theatre as one could wish, and utterly unpredictable, because the journey taken by the author was, itself, fraught with surprise after surprise. That he is capable of the insight that allowed him to write it in this fashion, and the empathy that allowed him to approach it so even-handedly makes me think much better of him, and look more forward to his future work than I thought possible.

For "Via Dolorosa" is not just a transforming and important evening in and of itself…you get the distinct impression that on some deep, profound level, it has transformed the artist as well. And I like to think his experience—both living it and performing it—will impact upon his work in all kinds of unexpected ways for years to come. But either way, I can never let myself take Mr. Hare for granted again…for whatever else you can say about his canon, you can’t deny that "Via Dolorosa" is one of those rare examples of art—of understanding as art—that can make the world better.

He’s done the hard work. All that’s required of us…is to listen…

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