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In 1999 English playwright David Hare undertook a short visit to Israel and the occupied territories in search of... what? Material for a play? A better understanding of a major contemporary issue? A feeling that Hampstead, London, is not perhaps quite at the hub of the modern world? What resulted was not a play, but a stage monologue, and Hare, not a trained actor, chose to perform it himself, met with some success, took the production to America, where Via Dolorosa, as he called it, was filmed in performance at the Booth Theater.
Via Dolorosa, the pathway of sorrows, is a plain man's journey through the complexities and impossibilities at the heart of the Israel/Palestine problem. Hare is by turns puzzled, amused, infuriated and deeply moved by the opinions, some deeply held, others casually prejudiced, which he meets. He brings to life for us the various people encountered on the way: his translator, a British Council worker, an august Palestinian politician, a desperate Israeli lawyer, all of them opening his eyes, up to a point, to the tragic situation in the Middle East. Yet he returns to Hampstead a sadder man, certainly with no ideas for a play, with no solutions to the problem, but perhaps with a little wisdom to share with us.
As cinema, Via Dolorosa probably works better than some other efforts to preserve stage performances on film. It is simply photographed, with no more than brief bracket-scenes shot outside the Booth Theater. As a playwright, Hare knows all about pacing and varying his story; just occasionally you wonder how better an accomplished actor might have handled the material. But since it is such a personal tale, and since Hare seems to have no political axe to grind, it is easy to lose yourself in the spellbinding narrative and forgive the odd arm-flap or vocal swoop.
Strong partisans of either persuasion may find Hare's even-handedness hard to take. Those of us of his generation who share his bewilderment are grateful for his honest attempt to turn sadness into art.
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