At the beginning of “Via Dolorosa,” the utterly spellbinding theater piece that David Hare has written for himself to perform, the playwright-now-turned-actor steps gingerly to the front of a very deep stage and cracks a wry smile: “I’ve always tried to get Judi Dench to do this sort of thing.” Ninety minutes later, he exits the same stage from which wryness has long been banished, replaced — in Stephen Daldry’s incisive direction — by the pathos, humanity, and despairing compassion of a chronicler who is being only partly disingenuous when he claims late on, “I’m just a pen.”
And, now, a performer. So, is Hare another Dench? Hardly, since, for one thing, it’s difficult to know what else he might ever act. But this daring theatrical experiment has the sustained emotional force that characterized the ending of “Amy’s View,” his Broadway-bound vehicle for Dench.
Hare’s topic is the Middle East, as conveyed in his narrative of an actual journey that parallels a more private one within. (Hare turned 50 not long before Israel did. For the record, he is a non-Jew married, as he says in the play, to a Jew.) But the subtext of “Via Dolorosa” itself remains Hare’s ongoing ardor for the theater as a forum for debate wedded to feeling and, on this occasion, journalism of an unjaundiced, wide-reaching sort.
Ah, but is it a play, some will argue, even with the ace creative team behind “An Inspector Calls” — designers Ian MacNeil (sets) and Rick Fisher (lighting) included — on hand to lift the evening well beyond a lecture? (The production falters only in a late visual flourish whose cumbersome showiness is at odds with the bare-walled simplicity — some desks and a ramp make up the set — that otherwise prevails.)
But such cavils are the only academic aspect of a show that works as history lesson, moral inquiry and a kind of earned showmanship. Like Walt Whitman before him, Hare contains multitudes.
In a way, “Via Dolorosa” adopts the opposite approach to, say, the plays of actress-monologuist Anna Deavere Smith (“Fires in the Mirror,” etc.) in order to arrive at a similar end. Whereas Smith submerges herself in the numerous voices and poses of those who make up her historical recreations, Hare mostly folds into himself the newfound acquaintances of his trip, so that the evening’s 30 -odd characters are all refracted through an alert, apparently impartial, but never distant eye.
The point is: How can one be distant in a disputed and disputatious land whose inhabitants’ ever-bristling passion makes it impossible to be disengaged? Initially, Hare gets mordant comic mileage out of the sheer degree of politicization: an Israeli analogue to the Oscars in which, Hare reports, every acceptance speech is about politics (“As the organizer said rather plaintively, ‘all the suspense leading up to Best Picture was lost”‘). Or a “Romeo and Juliet ,” eight years in the making, with Palestinians playing the Capulets and Jews as the Montagues: “It was not a production about love but about hate.”
In Tel Aviv for the Cameri Theater premiere of “Amy’s View,” talk of the play’s emphasis on “private values” appeals to the company in a country where, reports Hare, “people are still arguing passionately about where their country is heading.” Not for the Israelis, he continues, Tony Blair’s ability “to represent all things to all men.” These particular Israelis’ reply: “Oh please, please send us your Tony Blair.”
“The loveless English” has been a Hare constant going back at least as far as “Plenty,” and the actor-writer is clearly moved by the feistiness of a region that, to its credit, cares enough to believe. (One thinks, “Equus”-like, of the Middle East as the fevered — sometimes suicidally so — Alan Strang to the Dr. Dysart that is Hare’s ordered, dry, emotionally desiccated England.)
In other ways, though, “Via Dolorosa” amplifies the concerns of Hare’s abiding masterwork, “Racing Demon,” in its lament for a community of believers doomed by their own querulousness. It’s as if Hare’s own via dolorosa kept arriving at the ringing question, “is everything loss?”, posed by the earlier play. “Via Dolorosa” is smart enough to raise infinite questions but (thankfully) never smug enough to claim to know the answers.
Hare’s achievement pertains not just to memory alone, though one does wonder how he ever learned 43 pages of dense text, or some 12,000 words. (Mike Nichols, the sedentary star of Hare’s staging of “The Designated Mourner,” at least had a TelePrompTer.) Hare manages to guide us through an itinerary well beyond the reach (and wish) of his British Council hosts without self-importantly appropriating a region’s woes as his own or interposing himself between the audience and his shifting entourage.
The latter include, most memorably, a Jewish-American couple in the Sheri Tikva settlement who are pleased to live in a place where Memorial Day is cause for both celebration and tears, not mattress sales. Or one of his hosts in the Arab city of Ramallah, who inveighs against the portrait of his race in films like “The English Patient” and “Air Force One.”
Virtually worth a play of her own is onetime Rabin government “firebrand,” Shulamit Aloni, for whom feeling has become fact: “It’s a bad time,” she tells Hare. “That’s what I know.”
So is everything loss? As with most of the questions in “Via Dolorosa,” the answer demands both a yes and no.
Like Hare, one feels the lasting ache of one region in thrall to passions so deep that they divide and another — Hare’s native England — deemed by the onstage reporter to be so devoid of fervor that its apparent blankness may itself be murderous.
But what about culture, what about the theater, the play’s very existence asks? Doesn’t that offer hope?
“It’s the facts we want. Give us the facts,” Hare says following his visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial. But “Via Dolorosa” offers something more, pressing observation into the service of empathy so as to arrive at that separate but equal truth called art.