Outspoken Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol isn’t a big fan of theater whose only purpose is to entertain. Indeed, he’s always made it his mission to confront some of the most radioactive social and political questions of our time in his work — even if it’s often landed him in hot water. His controversial 1987 drama “The Jerusalem Syndrome,” which drew parallels between Roman persecution of Jews in ancient times and Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, led to a huge national uproar and his ouster as artistic director of the Haifa Municipal Theatre.
In a recent Skype conversation from Tel Aviv, where he’s directing a production of “The Merchant of Venice” set at the height of Mussolini’s Fascist regime, Sobol, 77, stresses that “we have to combine [entertainment] with the power of theater to be a mirror of the times, as Shakespeare put it in very brilliant words.”
Sobol, who is coming to Boston March 20-31 as part of a residency with Israeli Stage, has said he has no illusions that art and theater can alter political reality or easily change people’s entrenched perspectives. But he’s long believed that theater “should return to its original role as a public forum where you confront the audience with the burning questions of the time, as a form of debate and discussion in a very entertaining form.”
Sobol’s Israeli Stage residency will strive to provide exactly that kind of public forum. It will feature lectures and dialogue at three Massachusetts universities (Holy Cross, Emerson College, Boston University) and at Boston’s Temple Israel on the topic of “theatre as a form of resistance to oppression.” Conversations with Sobol will also take place on March 23 at Brandeis University and March 26 at New Repertory Theatre in Watertown. And Israeli Stage will sponsor a staged reading of Sobol’s new play “David, King” at Wellesley College on April 5. The play offers a modern twist that speculates on David’s reluctance to hold the throne.
Theatergoers will also be able to catch a full production of Sobol’s play “Sinners,” directed by Emmy and Olivier award-winning actor Brian Cox and starring his wife, Nicole Ansari, from March 23 to April 2 at Boston University’s TheatreLab@855. In the searing drama, Ansari plays Layla, a married Muslim woman and university professor who has an affair with one of her students and faces the prospect of being stoned to death in an unnamed country. This production of “Sinners” from Vermont’s Greensboro Arts Alliance and Residency/Mirror Theater will be presented by New Repertory Theatre and the Boston Center for American Performance.
“Sobol’s heartbeat in all of his writings is moral complexity,” says Jim Petosa, New Rep’s artistic director. “He’s not writing agitprop theater that creates obvious sentimentalized victims and victimizers. He writes from the more human and more substantial notion that we live lives that are extremely complex, and sometimes what is right and what it wrong is really a very difficult thing to come to and is oftentimes tainted by other considerations that impact our notions of right and wrong.”
Sobol’s lecture on theater as a form of resistance connects strongly with his own work. His play “Ghetto” — the first in an acclaimed trilogy of dramas set in the Vilna Ghetto in Lithuania during World War II — chronicles the formation of a morale-boosting theater company in the midst of the brutality of the ghetto and explores the moral complexities of trying to do any good in the face of relentless evil. The theme of his lecture, Sobol says, will grapple with “the way oppressed people struggled to survive and resist in the face of annihilation and the importance that theater can have in such a situation.”
In “Sinners,” a shrouded figure is buried up to her chest in front of a blood-stained brick wall. The woman, Layla, confronts her lover, Nur, who’s been forced to gather and pile up the stones that will be used to kill her. The action centers on their conversation, as Layla professes her love for Nur, wonders if he was the one who confessed their affair to the authorities, confronts him with questions about his own cowardice, and rages against the ways that societies fear the feminine. Sobol says he was inspired to write the play after reading about the sanctioned stoning of women in some Middle Eastern countries.
“The play deals with the problem of people being brought up from early childhood in a way that they learn to suppress their true feelings, to deny their freedom as human beings, and to feel guilty that they feel such strong love for another person. Freedom still frightens us. So the play is about this [idea].”
Sobol, Cox, and Ansari say that the play is neither anti-Muslim nor simply a critique of repressive Islamic societies. “I know that Islam is under attack,” Sobol says, “and I don’t want my play to be taken as a weapon against Islam, not at all.”
In Cox’s view, “Sinners” is an “anti-fundamentalist play. It’s really about the patriarchy, which is dying on its feet, and about how we use religion to serve patriarchal means,” he says in a phone interview with Ansari from their home in Brooklyn. “I think it’s about any society, really, where woman are held in this inferior position and how women are reduced and female sexuality is reduced.”
For women to be liberated, Ansari says, men must be liberated as well. “That’s why the women’s movement can only go so far. We also have to liberate the male from its indoctrinated role, and role that they’ve been put in. That’s really the beauty of the play. You see both sides and how it all stems from the fear of sexuality. Layla says it beautifully: You men, you’re all alike. You’re all afraid of us women. You don’t know what to do with our sensuality. You don’t know what to do with our lust for life.”
Ansari says that Sobol is the kind of writer who pushes back against the lies, deceptions, and brutality of those who hold power. “I think good theater should always be some kind of resistance,” she says.
Produced by the Greensboro Arts Alliance & Residency/Mirror Theater. Presented by New Repertory Theatre. At Boston University’s TheatreLab@855, March 23-April 2. Tickets: $20-$35, 617-923-8487, www.newrep.orgChristopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@