“The Child Dreams”: Hanoch Levin

Michael Ajzenstadt in Tel Aviv

In the autumn of 1993, the newest play of the time by Hanoch Levin, The Child Dreams, was co-produced by the Habima National Theatre, the Haifa Theatre, and the Israel Festival. It was one of the most significant premieres in the history of Israeli theatre. Levin (b. 1943 d. 1999) is a great Israeli playwright and his plays are among the most important to have ever been staged in Israel. They range from larger-than-life mythical works like The Torment of Job and The Great Whore of Babylon to very political satires like Murder and family dramas like The Youth of Vardale, Hefetz, or Rubber Merchants to name just a few. Every Levin premiere (most of them directed by the playwright himself) was an occasion, but The Child Dreams was much more than the usual Levin project. It was an expansive poetic drama that dealt with death, refugees seeking refuge in foreign lands, the horrors of war, and – like most Levin plays – the relationship between parents and their children.

 

Photo credit: Gerard Alon.

 

The Child Dreams, with its scores of roles, was never again performed after its premiere twenty-five years ago. Now the Cameri Theatre and the Habima National Theatre have cooperated on a project that brought this classic back on stage. It was the best possible decision to have entrusted the production to Omri Nitzan, the artistic director of the Cameri who worked closely with Levin during his lifetime and has since sensitively interpreted Levin’s plays. In spite of using nineteen actors to portray the numerous roles in the Levin script, Nitzan opted for a chamber play version of the drama and in that way succeeded in making it much more relevant and immediate to our own day and age.

Levin’s plays are specifically Israeli works that have an international appeal to them. However, The Child Dreams is not set in any specific time or place. In 2018, it is as powerful and relevant as ever not only as a play but also for the social issues it brings forth. The play begins with a peaceful moment when a father and a mother put their child to sleep. It is a moment of joy that is shattered by the violent entry of refugees and soldiers who pour onto the stage. The parents beg the commander not to wake the child, but he refuses to do so. But in order to make the time pass pleasantly for the little boy he orders his soldiers to put away their guns and behave like clowns. At once, they smear their faces with red liquid. It is the blood of a musician who has just been shot. Thus, death enters the idyllic picture, and as of this moment the play is a journey from life to death, a journey that culminates in the death of more than a few characters and above all of the child of the title who joins other dead children who believe that there is hope for resurrection.

 

Photo credit: Gerard Alon.

 

After the character of “A Woman Born for Love” (Ruth Asrsaiasi), one of Levin’s outstanding heroines that he was famous for creating, taunts and thereby provokes the death of the father of the boy (Ben Yosipovich), mother and son (Naama Chetrit) leave and join a group of refugees sailing to a distant shore. Here for the first time the child’s mother is faced with a dilemma, one of many that she will encounter throughout the journey. The ship’s captain is not willing to take the child along and at the end agrees only if the mother will have sex with him. Initially, the mother refuses, but eventually she realizes that her role in life is to protect her child no matter what it takes, and she submits. In the following scene, the boat reaches an island where the governor permits only the child to disembark. The mother now has a gruelling task: she has to convince her child that they should separate, because she knows that his only chance for life is without her. She does all she can, including using physical force, to make the boy go ashore. However, the young child refuses to be separated from his mother. And at the end the mother can do nothing to save her stubborn child who continues in the journey that she knows will lead to his death.

There are many touching scenes in the play and Nitzan’s production is created with a tender heart. The mother (the excellent Ola Schur Selektar in one of her most touching roles to date) begs for the life of her son time and again. Her plea to the captain is tear-jerking, her insistence that her child should leave her on the ship and move to the island is mesmerizing, and when at the end she brings him – carries him in her own hands — to join the other dead children the scene is gripping.

Nitzan does not only focus on specific and detailed characterisations for each of the actors, but also the power of the production lies in how he directs the larger scenes. The refugees on the boat do not leave one dry eye in the audience as they continue their perpetual journey despite showing awareness that there is no light at the end of the tunnel. The dead children in the finale who wait for the Messiah to save them play innocent children’s games only to be faced with a reality they refuse to accept. Such moments are numerous and are always enhanced by the fantastic score created by Joseph Bardanashvili, one of the country’s leading composers of classical music and of musicals. The powerful score ranges from tender to violent, from chamber to symphonic, and from agony to ecstasy; it adds a very specific colour to the entire production.

The Child Dreams is the story of a child who experiences the joy of life briefly before he is faced with its cruelty. It is a story in which death hovers around everyone from beginning to end, and death here is not pleasant at all (as if there could be something like a pleasant death). Death is not comforting here; it is agonizing in its futility. The Child Dreams is a play about individuals who try to usurp the power given to them for small advantages that do not and cannot really comfort or bring joy. It is a play in which there are no winners, a play that starts with a tiny ray of hope that shatters into thin splinters. And because of Levin’s poetic language the play also rises above its subject matter in this production to become a sincere and personal work of art.

Nitzan took a grand opus of yesteryear and revived it as a chamber play that is both touching and troubling, suggesting that The Child Dreams is about the dreams we all have known and lost – the dreams we all want to recreate so that our future will not be as cruel as our past.