Sunday, December 28, 2008

Harsh truths about love

Performed at Old Mutual Theatre on the Square, Sandton, Johannesburg

Hard Love is a play inspired by a real incident in the life of Israeli playwright Motti Lerner.

“I met a lovely girl,” he writes, “who later became deeply religious. Our lives were virtually impossible from the outset. One day I saw her quite by chance at the theatre. She was married with many children and had shaved her hair.”

Still wondering what she felt, the seed of an idea was planted and a hard-hitting poignant examination of a relationship, is the result.

Zvi (Ashley Dowds) has come to the religious neighbourhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem to see Hannah (Keren Tahor), the woman he divorced 20 years before. They are worlds apart: Zvi has chosen not to become religious, moved away from the neighbourhood after his divorce and has spent the past two decades writing books.

Meanwhile, Hannah has become ultra-orthodox and is devoting herself to motherhood and home, raising a child with a man nearly 30 years older than herself.

Going back and forth over their lives and what each has become, they soon start to reach the real the heart of their conversation. They must discuss the blossoming relationship between Eran and Rivka, ironically their two children from their respective second marriages. How the two teenagers become involved is less important than the fact that they are smitten with each other, much to their parents’ consternation.

This attitude shifts in the play. At first Zvi is amused, and not at all concerned by the relationship which so disturbs Hannah, but as the scene changes, it is Zvi who cannot accept it, while Hannah welcomes it.

The couple were divorced because of the death of their first-born child, and the religious doubts that crept into Zvi’s life after that early trauma.

Hannah has blamed him, saying God punished him for not believing, an idea that has festered throughout the years of her marriage to the only man that would take her, a man twice her age.

“I was divorced, my son had died no one else would have had me,” Hannah explains to Zvi, as he tries to make sense of her life.

In a dance of admissions, guilt and evasion, Hannah and Zvi’s conversation twines through the years, each believing that the other has not been happy in their chosen life. After his second divorce Zvi has flitted from woman to woman, a practice which the religious Hannah cannot condone, or understand.

Early on we learn that Zvi’s mother committed suicide, a martyr to her religion which she saw as imprisoning her. Clearly this early influence has influenced Zvi’s own desire to escape.

There can be no common ground between them, no reaching through that which divides them, despite the love they once felt for each other, and still do.

“To this day all my dreams take place in your street,” says Zvi.

Scenery and viewpoints shift in the second half of the play as we leave the religious neighbourhood of Mea Shearim. We move away from a traditional setting where a lace tablecloth covers the table, the chandelier is dim and old, and the sideboard is probably a piece of furniture passed down through the generations.

We are in secular Tel Aviv, the light is bright, the furniture modern and minimal, all stark lines and white leather. The action plays itself out within this room, as we see that the balance of power has shifted. Zvi is no longer so sure footed and Hannah has meanwhile gained in confidence and brightened.

But will they be able to breach religious differences and the dark seam of mistrust that has characterised their relationship? You keep hoping.

Tahor brings luminosity to her portrayal of Hannah, beautiful through her passionate beliefs and certainty of faith. Dowds inhabits the complex Zvi.

Both actors take on mild Israeli accents, but Dowds’s voice is sometimes lost within the accent and is indistinct at times. Both successfully draw you into their worlds and their dilemmas. I couldn’t help feeling that the interval was superfluous. The second half is distinctly shorter and I’m sure that we could have held out as an audience. The lack of a break would in this case serve to keep you engrossed.

A jarring element in the production is the use of lights, which suddenly brighten to indicate moments passing. I thought that this device was unnecessary. Darkening the stage for these moments passing would have felt more natural.

This is a story that stays with you long after the rather abrupt, yet open-ended final scene. You will draw your own conclusions as Hannah exits the stage – perhaps that religious differences cannot conquer all, or that two people cannot cross the divide of their own personalities, or something else entirely.

That’s the beauty and strength of Hard Love, which is a play that makes you question your own assumptions about the nature of love.

(Published in The Sunday Independent July 20 2008)

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