Mr. Hare Goes to Israel: Prolific Playwright Acts!

It’s an unexpected pleasure to see David Hare on a Broadway stage, of all peculiar places. As he says at the start of Via Dolorosa , his engaging 90-minute monologue about his trip to Israel, he’s always tried to get Judi Dench “to do this sort of thing.”

There speaks the diffident Englishman, of course–with the additional piquancy that Ms. Dench happens to be appearing round the corner in his latest hit play, Amy’s View . The English are specialists in the cult of the amateur who disarms via charm, and Mr. Hare does it naturally.

He enters from the exit door of the backstage wall of the Booth Theater, as if ambling in by mistake. He then crosses what looks like a perilously flimsy wooden bridge with a steep drop into oblivion. He looks a little hesitant, which is understandable, as if he’s about to announce: “Hello, I must be going.”

Yet he reveals no nerves. He’s acting for the first time since he played Thomas Cromwell at age 15 in the school production of A Man for All Seasons . Christopher Hampton (who went on to write the stage version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses and the English adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s Art ) played Richard Rich. The nerveless Mr. Hare, one thinks, must either be incredibly brave or mad.

The English have a weakness for nicknames: He was known as “the Head Boy” at the Royal National Theater (where his longtime director, Richard Eyre, was “The Headmaster”). When he stands on stage and faces us, he looks boyishly earnest, awkward, slightly embarrassed and eager–eager to please and tell his story.

Why is this famous dramatist acting? (Or not acting?) He says it’s that he just wants “to see what it’s like.” And next, he will be playing King Lear. No, he isn’t really acting, except when sawing the air occasionally for extra effect. Rather, the success and intelligence of this conversation about Israel–Aldous Huxley’s great “slaughterhouse of religions”–is due to him playing himself, most winningly.

I don’t know why he describes Via Dolorosa as “a play.” If it’s a play, this column is a poem. (But it ain’t, alas.) Via Dolorosa is a fascinating monologue of solid reportage and fact. Mr. Hare has always had a testy regard for journalists, and so resists being described as one. He’s nevertheless reporting honorably from the battlefront–as an awed, honestly baffled and fair-minded observer. “I am a pen,” he says during the piece, consciously mimicking Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories , adapted on Broadway as I Am a Camera .

“Not to put it too grandly,” Mr. Hare has explained. “I think it a democratic good thing that a quarrel should be aired among nonparticipants.” He lets his naïveté show. “My ignorance and dismay are an unhappy cocktail,” he confesses at one point. But it is the boldness of his ambitious theme–the vital historic bigness of it all, of Israeli and Arab warfare and the “strife of the soul”–that makes Via Dolorosa so welcome.

He’s using theater like a vivid town hall meeting–a forum for ideas and debate, and political knowledge. Clearly, he’s a million miles from the generic New York neurotic’s monologue titled, “How I Came to Terms With My Dysfunctional Parents and Became a Semi-Famous Actress.” The tired genre is showbiz-y autobiography. We get a superior version of this in Lisa Kron’s solo show, The 2.5 Minute Ride , at the Joseph Papp Public Theater. The comic performer, well liked as a feel-good lesbian, somehow manages to combine the story of a trip to Auschwitz in the company of her near-blind, elderly dad with another family outing involving a jolly roller coaster ride at an Ohio amusement park. It’s Ms. Kron’s eccentric, quite touching family tale, a personal comic catharsis made public.

Mr. Hare is closer to Anna Deveare Smith’s solo cultural reporting of a divided America–without the impersonations, though with more of a sense of humor. He tells us that Philip Roth (who has recorded his own impressions of Israel) advised him to go: “You’ve got to go and see it for yourself. These people are absolute lunatics. They’re the maddest people I’ve ever met in my life. For any writer of fiction, they’re the most wonderful material.”

So it proves (though only the absolute zealots are lunatics absolutely). An Israeli friend tells him that in a single day he experiences events and emotions “that would keep a Swede going for a year.”

Mr. Hare reaches saturation point in the demanding company of an orthodox Jewish family of West Bank settlers. He finds himself “trying to avoid trigger words like Rabin or Bible.” He’s left utterly perplexed by a fierce argument about the biblical story of whether a girl of 3 can, or cannot, carry 40 buckets of water to water her camels.

“Suddenly, the whole table is yelling,” he tells us, “and I am just sitting there wondering–wondering in the sense of marveling–that it never occurs to anyone here that maybe the story is wrong, maybe the storyteller just got it wrong , but no, it’s the Bible, so it must be true …”

He loses the sympathy of the orthodox family when he explains that his wife–the French fashion designer Nicole Fahri–is Jewish. Her family fled Turkey; her parents hid from the Nazis for a year in a barn in France. But his wife married a gentile–our narrator–and one cousin married a black man, and another cousin lives with an Arab. “And what’s funny is the Jewish family’s fine about it,” he tells Sarah, one of the family. “It’s the Arab girl who doesn’t dare tell hers.”

Then he tells us: “I feel Sarah withdraw from me. Up till this, I have been an observer. Now I am the husband of an assimilationist.”

Taken aback by the filth and desolation of Gaza, he meets a revered Palestinian politician. But it dawns on him that Haider Abdel Shafi has mistaken him for the campaigning British journalist David Hirst of The Guardian , and congratulates him on his work. “It seems somehow appropriate to this peculiar, hushed city,” Mr. Hare tells us with a straight face, “that a person who knows nothing is about to interview someone who thinks he is someone else.”

His subject as a playwright, he tells us at the outset, has been faith. I would say it’s also been a search for faith (including the Church of England’s in Secret Rapture and for a faith in theater in Amy’s View ). He says that he lives in a country–England–where nobody believes in anything anymore. In Israel, at least, people are fighting. “In Israel, they’re fighting for something they believe in.”

So too–we might add–are the Serbs. But the troubled Mr. Hare provides no answers–only a central moral question and dilemma: Land for peace? How do we make progress in Israel? “Are we where we live, or are we what we think? What matters? Stones or ideas?”

“Stones to right and stones to left … stony tombs; stony hills and stony hearts,” Herman Melville wrote when visiting Jerusalem in 1857. And Amos Elon’s brilliant book, Jerusalem: City of Mirrors , reminds me that in Jewish legends, stones rained from the sky: “God threw a stone into the waters of the abyss and from this stone the whole world grew, with Jerusalem at its center.”

And the great Spanish-Hebrew poet Yehuda Halevi affirms the devotion:

Could I but kiss thy dust

So would I fain expire.

As sweet as honey then,

My longing and desire.

David Hare’s Via Dolorosa is directed by Stephen Daldry. You should see it, if you can.