Crossing Jerusalem, written and directed by Julia Pascal

A Jewish writer fills a vacuum with a play about Israel that refuses to take a simple view as it foregrounds an erotic older woman. Matthew Reisz writes

August 13, 2015
Chris Spyrides and Trudy Weiss in Crossing Jerusalem, Park Theatre, London
Source: Mia Hawk
Love and hate: Chris Spyrides as Sergei and Trudy Weiss as the powerful matriarch Varda

Crossing Jerusalem
Written and directed by Julia Pascal
Starring Trudy Weiss
Park Theatre, London, until 29 August 2015

Jerusalem, 2002 – perhaps the bloodiest year until then in the history of Israel/ Palestine since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the moment when the second intifida definitively marked the end of the optimism in the wake of the Oslo Accords.

Gideon Kaufmann still has 24 hours’ leave before he has to go back to military service in the occupied territories. His wife, Yael, is celebrating her 30th birthday and trying to convince him that their daughter, Michaela, needs a brother, citing the Jewish religious obligation to have sex on the Sabbath. But Gideon keeps backing away, saying that it’s the wrong time for another child but refusing to discuss what is really upsetting him. Even between husband and wife, war has left a gaping hole of silence.

Later the same day, Gideon’s mother, Varda, is trying to put together a huge but precarious property deal while also calming her senile mother on the phone. When her 35-year-old daughter, Liora, arrives, she instantly starts grumbling about what she’s wearing and that it’s “time I had a grandson”. Her second husband, Sergei, an immigrant to Israel from Russia, deals with the almost constant family tensions by making crass remarks, irrelevant observations or jokes, followed up with “sorry about that”.

After Gideon turns up, his sister confides in him about her love life. Casual sex with strangers has become addictive. She “can’t live without” the “hot feeling” she gets – the “look that burns a hole in my belly” – when someone tries to pick her up in the street. It’s “something to do with being here” in Jerusalem, she explains, “the fucking dying capital of the world”.

Since no one has thought about food, all five of them decide to celebrate Yael’s birthday at an Arab restaurant on the other side of town that offers “free hummus to any Jews who dare to eat there”. And so the whole strange, dysfunctional, even rather unlikeable family set off together to cross Jerusalem, and to an encounter where they are forced to face up to some dark secrets from the past…

This new production is her own restaging of a play which Julia Pascal was originally commissioned to write by London’s Tricycle Theatre in 2002. Brought up in a Jewish family in Manchester and Blackpool, she spent three months in Israel at the age of 14, including eight weeks at a Scottish school in Jaffa, where there were few other Jews but “an extraordinary mixture of Arabs, Christians, people from Eastern Europe, diplomats’ children, the children of a guy who had come over from England to train the Israeli football team – strange English people I would never have met otherwise”.

Subsequent trips to Israel and many “dialogues and conversations and arguments” across political and ethnic divides both there and in London led her to reflect that “there has never been a play on the British stage about Israel that doesn’t take a simple, easy point of view: Palestinian good, Israeli bad. Most of them have been put on at the Royal Court Theatre.” The Tricycle’s commission offered her a way to “fill a vacuum” and “make a contribution to the canon of British stage writing – there’s nothing which is so conflictual, so representative of what I know about Israel and the debate within”.

Although she “do[es] not believe that Israel should be dissolved” and thinks that “boycotting academics and intellectuals is a very bad idea”, Pascal does not see it as her job to offer solutions to a conflict largely created by Europeans. “I feel they [Jewish Israelis and Palestinians] are both right and they are both wrong – you can see that in the play,” she explains, adding that she deplores the impact of religion on both sides but “do[es]n’t think there’s any difference between Palestinians and Jews. I did a gene test quite recently and there’s a similarity with Druze and Kurds.”

In any event, Crossing Jerusalem is in no sense crassly “pro-Israel”. It draws heavily on interviews Pascal carried out in London with Israeli “refusenik” soldiers, who described their experiences of serving on the West Bank, including the brutalities that they had carried out, and then risking imprisonment for refusing to go back. The Palestinian characters – restaurant owner Sammy; Yusuf, who works for him; and Yusuf’s brother, Sharif – are torn between pragmatic accommodation and political activism, the lure of violence and the desire to keep their families safe. Part of this came from interviews that Pascal carried out in Jerusalem, where she pretended to be French rather than Jewish. But she also made a point of submitting a draft to Palestinian and Arab contacts in London, who told her: “It’s all fine except for one thing. A brother would never speak to his brother like that. He’d have much more respect.” The play was therefore rewritten to take account of this.

One of the most striking things about it is the way that the basic division into two “camps” is constantly breaking down, as momentary understanding, empathy, gender solidarity and desire flash between the Jewish and Palestinian characters.

“That’s what I experience all the time there,” agrees Pascal. “There’s an attraction and a repulsion, a love and a hate. They are each other, they love each other and they hate each other. They want to kill each other and to have sex with each other – particularly in that extremely charged environment of Jerusalem where death and sex are really in the air.”

Pascal has long been a campaigner for women’s writing in the theatre and believes that “there’s no seedbed” because of what amounts to “censorship in terms of commissions”. She has recently completed a PhD from the University of York about the representations – or, rather, lack of representations – of Jewish women on the British stage since the Second World War. This has also influenced the kind of characters that she has chosen to foreground.

“I’ve always been interested in bad mothers,” Pascal explains. “Because I don’t have children myself, I have met so many women who say: ‘I love my children, but I wish I had never had children’. They live that contradiction.”

In Varda, the compellingly monstrous matriarch who makes a point of telling her daughter that she loves her son more, she “wanted to explore a character who had children because it was the norm but was actually more interested in her career, her energy and drive. I wanted to write a dominant, sexual, careerist, ambitious woman who was in love with that power, whose children were secondary to her life. An erotic older woman – you never see that on the English stage either.”

At matinees, where many of the audience members are retired, she had noted a distinct frisson of pleasure that a female character in her late fifties was “not just an old person”.

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Print headline: Death and desire

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