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June 27, 2011 6:36 pm

Jérusalem Plomb Durci, Festival Impatience/Le Cent Quatre, Paris

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Making artistic sense of current conflicts is risky. This multimedia production boldly goes where not many have gone before, into the Middle Eastern conflict as experienced on the ground in Israel (also note US journalist Lawrence Wright’s The Human Scale, performed in Tel Aviv last month). The “cast lead” of its title – originally from H.N. Bialik’s Hanukkah poem – is a sardonic nod to Israel’s code name for its 2009 military operations in Gaza.

You might expect polemic from the subtitle – “a hallucinatory journey in an emotional dictatorship” – but the work is more nuanced. Visually and acoustically, it pits a tiny, frail individual against gigantic representations of state machinery and symbols, removing the protective filter of family or community.

Building on two landmarks – Yom Ha-Zikaron (a memorial day for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism) and Yom Ha’atzmaut (celebration of the creation of Israel) – the production interweaves television footage, home video, speeches, sirens and martial processions with candle ceremonies and folk dance to convey national paradoxes. The outside world is portrayed via intoned voice-over of successive United Nations resolutions. The sadly familiar phrase of this geopolitical liturgy, “continue to follow the situation closely”, takes on increasing elegiac force.

The creators – Israeli writer and performer Ruth Rosenthal and French sound artist Xavier Klaine – formed Winter Family in 2004 as an experimental music duo. This first foray into documentary theatre won the jury prize in the Odéon Theatre’s just-finished 2011 Impatience Festival.

Any work embedded in such a controversial context is more likely to be ephemeral than universal. This intense production has flaws. Its deafening soundtrack turns portrayal of bombardment into a literal assault on the audience’s senses. But if it lacks the caustic poetic resonance of, say, Hanoch Levin, it skilfully captures an imaginative territory beyond gritty realism or forensic thundering.

With chilling grace under blinding white light, the childlike Rosenthal stretches string after string of Israeli flags around the stage. The shrinking space evokes the wall that boxes in the territories of the mind as well as the land.

4 stars

Theatre Odéon

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