Is a true leader one who is ready to give up leadership? Major Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol (“Ghetto,” among many others) seems to think so in his provocatively secular new drama “David, King” (“David, Melech”), in an April 5 premiere staged reading at Wellesley College. To Israeli Stage artistic director Guy Ben-Aharon, who has given Sobol a residency this year with his company (through March 31; go to israelistage.com for details and locations), “Sobol’s David is shrewd, and funny, and sharp-tongued, but isn’t confident in his leadership – he constantly questions and thinks about leading (and abandoning leadership) from different points of view – making his leadership much more effective.”
While this bible-based play gives ample attention to King Saul’s dangerous jealousy toward David, the Goliath-killing shepherd’s singular love for Jonathan, bloodthirsty general Yoav (who premeditatedly kills Saul’s general Abner and David’s rebellious but cherished son Abshalom), Sobol adds a fairly modern take as well in which some prophets are described as “half-naked Hasidim” and an “Internationale” – here a song embracing the freedom of slaves – is sung in English, French, German and Spanish as well as Hebrew.
The contemporary approach applies to the setting as well as to the story of David. As Ben-Aharon sees it, “Sobol sets up the scene as a fight for power in the local square (of a Middle Eastern town), with gangsters and a beauty salon owner (Michal, daughter of Saul) and archetypal characters that are more a part of our modern day vernacular. This translates the lessons of King David to today’s world.” To that end, for example, the text of the play finds prophet Nathan becoming a newscaster and top correspondent speaking to King David in a television studio. Sobol has David and Jonathan engage in a ritual exchange of outfits as soul mates. At the same time, Avishag participates in auditions through which she gains the role of the virgin girl who will lie with cold King David.
“Because Sobol is a deeply secular person,”observes Ben-Aharon, “he replaces God, and God’s voice from the Tanach (Bible) story with the statue of David (described in the play as a ‘living statue’ street performer painted marble white) – a dramatic device that grounds King David. “Still, there are substantial references to David’s psalms and dialogue in which Solomon speaks of learning the language of ravens (a detail calling to mind the stories of the Midrash). Sobol also seems to suggest that David contended that kingship was a vanity of vanities and made the initial observation about a time and purpose for everything under heaven – ideas that inspired Solomon (according to tradition) to write “Ecclesiastes.”
The premiere staged reading will feature Jeremiah Kissel as King David, Thomas Kee as Saul and Nael Nacer as the Statue. Asked if Israeli Stage will present a full production of Sobol’s play as with the company’s 2016 IRNE Award-nominated area premiere of Anat Gov’s “Oh God,” Ben-Aharon offers, “Who knows? Let’s see what happens with the workshop! Having said that, Israeli Stage is committed to Joshua Sobol, his voice, his perspective, his ever-creative and inventive approach to theatre. You can expect to see a lot more of Sobol in the future!”
Staged reading of “David, King” by Israeli Stage is presented in partnership with Wellesley College’s Department of Religion and Department of Jewish Studies. April 5, Wellesley. Free.