Political Cabaret In Drag

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Ladies and Gentlemen, I’d like you to imagine a short, bold and chubby Israeli man wearing a long shiny golden dress. Underneath that, he’s wearing a short army green outfit that is tightly and provocatively wrapped around fake breasts. His legs look slender in their black tights and his feet are sporting a pair of beautiful high-heeled golden shoes. A sweeping, sparkling gold cloak hangs from his shoulders and on his back there’s a huge golden Star of David. A sharply cut sassy short black wig covers his baldhead and where there should ordinarily have been a cleavage there is a modest quota of chest hair.

Ladies and Gentlemen, this isn’t how I usually dress (honestly): this is what I wear when I’m playing a character I created called Star. Star is the MC of a cabaret-style political musical about Israel. I created the play along with five stunningly beautiful and intelligent women who also perform the show with me. Their characters are called – Ruthless Rachel, Rebellious Rebecca, Heartless Hanna, Lethal Lea and Merciless Miriam. There’s also a musician called Camp David. The title of the play is Ballad of the Burning Star.

Me and my company are inside a make-shift theatre premiering Ballad of the Burning Star at the Edinburgh Festival: it’s 40 minutes into a packed out show, everything’s going well, I mount the staircase that runs through the seating, so that I have audience members sitting on either side of me. All of sudden an angry man grabs hold of my dress, yanks on it hard, and says – “Yitzhak Rabin didn’t start the six-day war!”

I was shocked!

For a moment everything stops as I turn to see a man with fury in his eyes speaking to me rather forcefully. There are no security guards at the door and up on the staircase in the auditorium I was, essentially, by myself, with this very angry man.  Yes, I had wanted to make a provocative piece of political theatre, but I hadn’t planned on getting my nose broken.

What do I do?

Theatre makers are always saying they want to make provocative work. That is partly what I had set out to do. But standing there, while a stranger is tugging on my golden dress, made me wonder:

What is it exactly that we want to provoke? And what do we do when the tables turn and the audience provokes us?

I decided to look a little closer at what happened in order to see if I could find an answer to these questions. Let’s go back. Before he grabbed my dress, as I was performing, I could see the angry man warming up to the fateful dress-grabbing moment each time I glanced to my left. He had been getting angrier and angrier every time I said the word occupation. To be honest, I do say it quite a few times during the play, and in a rather annoying way, emphasizing every syllable, trying to stretch out the duration of the word, wanting to let the audience feel the 45 years since the Six Day War, the 45 years since the beginning of the  – Occ-u-pa-tion. The angry man kept speaking to the woman next to him, his voice just a tiny bit too loud, his gestures sharp and cutting: so I suspected he was angry. You could tell that the woman by his side was embarrassed by his behaviour.

Merciless Miriam was playing the assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin giving his famous speech at the peace rally in Tel-Aviv in 1995. Shortly after finishing this speech he’d be shot dead. At this moment in the piece, my character continually interrupts Prime Minister Rabin, who’s trying to give his speech, by snatching the mic from him over and over again. She is explaining to the audience that the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister Rabin was not only a peacemaker. I tell them that he also led the Israeli army during the Six Day War of 1967 when they occupied the west bank, the Gaza strip, east Jerusalem etc. At this point the angry man was clearly riled: he was huffing and puffing and whispering to the embarrassed woman beside him.

So when I went to my designated spot amongst the audience on the staircase, which just so happened to be right next to this angry man and the embarrassed woman, I was understandably nervous.

I was just about to say my next line when he leaned forward, grabbed my dress from behind, yanked on it and said – “Yitzhak Rabin didn’t start the six-day war!”

In that instant, the space was electrified, and the audience seemed to hold their breath:  this man was breaking the unspoken boundary between the performer and spectator. Not in any pre-determined experimental theatre way. He was genuinely provoked. Be careful what you wish for I thought…

After the show ended, I escaped to the dressing room. I was sitting there removing my make-up and taking some time to understand what just happened. A colleague walked in and asked if I was fine. I said I was. He said “wait, did you see what happened just now?” And I reacted with a characteristic impatience – “did I see? It was my dress he was grabbing!”

“No…” he said. “After the applause this angry man stood up and shouted to the audience – ‘This is propaganda, it’s one sided, it’s propaganda!’ And other members of the audience said ‘No it wasn’t, it was theatre!’

As I was removing my mascara, I was thinking – we had worked for over two years to find a way to articulate feelings and thoughts that revolve around a complex situation that would provoke people. And yet, seeing that our work does provoke our public we suddenly become afraid of such a reaction. Moreover, part of us wishes it wasn’t happening at all. The part of us that doesn’t want our noses to be broken.

Right there, in that moment, an audience member had been so provoked, was experiencing such discomfort due to what he was watching, that he had felt compelled to act. Shouldn’t I have been celebrating this, shouldn’t I have let him express his aggravation and point of view instead of finding a quick way to silence this man and getting on with the performance?

Well, I’m not so sure.

To this day, I’m intrigued to think of what would have happened if I had have reacted differently. For example, if I would have turned to him and corrected his statement, saying “I never said that Rabin started the Six Day War, listen God damn it! I said he led the Israeli army during the Six Day War, and that’s a fact, so stop shouting at me” And he would have told me that the whole thing is very one-sided, that whoever wrote this play is an Israel-hater. In turn this could have provoked another member of the public to say that they don’t agree, that for them, the play feels pro-Israeli, and a third member of the audience could stand up and shout ‘I disagree with both of you, this is a well-balanced play that sides with neither the Palestinians nor the Israeli’s’, and so on and so forth… On the one hand, this whole hypothetical debacle could spark off a passionate debate. On the other hand, however, the show we had spent years writing would cease being performed. The delicate and intricate set of artistic choices we had assembled into a theatrical piece would have been disturbed, disrupted and potentially ended.

In retrospect, I have realised that what I wanted to provoke wasn’t a general reaction. I wanted to provoke dialogue, discussion, and debate. And thankfully a dialogue was created, it happened after every performance in Edinburgh when audience members waited for me outside of the dressing room to tell me their thoughts; it happened via email, Facebook and Twitter, some people even called us to let us know what they though.

I believe that the power of a well thought-through theatre production is greater than watching an argument between two people. If that’s what we’re looking for, we might as well go on BBC’s Question Time, which is a very dramatic, provocative and sometime even emotional event, but it’s not a piece of theatre. That’s not to invalidate other forms, but rather to say that they’re different.

In the end, I believe I did the right thing in putting a stop to the angry man’s interruption. When I got over the initial shock of him grabbing and telling me:

“Yitzhak Rabin didn’t start the six-day war!”

I turned to him and said through the microphone:

‘Is that right sweetheart? I would love to hear more of your thoughts but I have a show to get on with. Meet me in the bar later and we’ll talk, OK?’

Nir Paldi’s The Ballad Of The Burning Star comes to London’s JW3 on 12th October, at 7.30pm. Click to book.

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