Hamlet at Passover in Israel, 1980

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Hamlet at Passover in Israel, 1980

Playwright, actor and director Steven Berkoff shares a poignant personal memory to mark the festival

Steven Berkoff (seated front row right) as Hamlet in the production he directed and took to Israel in 1980
Steven Berkoff (seated front row right) as Hamlet in the production he directed and took to Israel in 1980

 It was March 1980 on the eve of Passover and our merry band of men, my company of bold actors, were flying out to do a tour of Israel with our production of Hamlet.

Oh, we were so excited to be going to the Middle East and for most of them it was their first time, but I was already a veteran.

I had certainly had some effect on the theatre-going public with my production of Metamorphosis, which toured Israel endlessly, following this with a very physical production of Agamemnon. But now, for the first time, I was appearing with my own British company as Hamlet. I was a tad anxious you might say.

We opened the season in Haifa at the invitation of the director Amnon Meskin, who had originally brought me to Israel.

Oh well, those are the risks you have to take and we seized the opportunity with both hands. Then our lovely Israeli producer, who was in charge of the arts festival in Jerusalem, sent us out every day from our digs in Jerusalem’s old city to the kibbutzim to perform and the effect was, for the most part, startling.

So warm was the response. After the show, we were driven back to the Old City, where we would quickly scout around the labyrinthine alleyways to find that ancient Arabic bakery that was open all night and made the most divine fluffy hot bread. We stuffed our mouths like hungry children.

There was one gig from which there was no possibility of getting back to Jerusalem since we were too far down the country. Evidently we were going to be put up by members of the audience who had previously advertised their interest in supplying accommodation.

It was a magical night, since we played outside and, as the two and a half hours slowly unrolled the mysteries of ‘Hamlet’, we watched as the audience gradually disappeared under the darkness. At the end, we had a reception that we’d never experienced in our lives and then we all gathered our props and costumes and stood as instructed in the foyer.


There was a group of people waiting for us and staring at us with some degree of intensity. Our Israeli tour producer – a most amiable and wonderfully inventive man – introduced us and then, to our astonishment, began to auction us! It was a unique event since he started by asking the audience who lived outside the kibbutz who they could put up for the night. He began by offering me … “Who can give accommodation to Hamlet?” A number of hands went up and, after some bartering, I was adopted. Then he went onto “Ophelia?” … Several more hands … “Laertes?” … Some of the same … and so it went on, right down to the smallest players, although none were really small part players since they were part of the magnificent

Passover had just begun and, for many, this was the first time our English colleagues had ever been invited to spend the night in a Jewish home, let alone an Israeli one. The next day, when we boarded our bus back to Jerusalem, the air was spinning with stories of how generous our hosts had been and how wonderfully they were wined and dined by the hosts, who had been so impressed by the performance and how clear the text was and thus understandable. Naturally, I was very proud since I was the only Jew in the company, although there were one or two with distant Jewish ancestry.

On the way back, we naturally stopped at Masada. This was altogether a visit that none of us would ever forget. At the summit, the cast were called back to rejoin the bus and, for some reason, I lingered as the others scrambled down the hill. Then the tour guide – having told the most moving and terrible story of the final moments of the besieged Jews of Masada – asked if any of the tourists present would like to read aloud the rabbi’s final words. Everybody was silent and then I felt I had to put up my hand. I was given the sheet containing the last holy words and never in my life had I been so proud as at that moment on top of Masada, delivering that extraordinary speech.

I felt noble and even purified. What an opportunity to celebrate and honour one of our ancient ancestor’s heroic, if tragic, events.

We were then transported back to Jerusalem and to our rooms in the Old City.

The following day was Friday and so there would be no performance that night.

This was somewhat of a relief to say the least, since on the Friday morning I’d had a call from my sister in London to tell me that my ailing mother had finally passed away. For the life of me, I just did not know what to do. Upon whom could I heave my sorrow? On whose shoulder could I weep? I visited a Jewish bookshop and explained my predicament and they suggested I go to the
‘Western’ or ‘Wailing Wall’, which I did.

At least I could pray here, but obviously I needed to say the Kaddish, the soulful prayer for the dead. On the left side of the wall is a large tunnel, where many of the Chasidic Jews seem to congregate and pray. I strolled tentatively in and dared to ask one of those extraordinary figures if he could help me. I explained that my mother had died a few hours ago and what could I do? “Of course, we will read the Kaddish for her,” he said.

I was so relieved, for this was exactly what was needed. Within seconds it seemed he had gathered the required quorum of 10 men, all garbed like himself. He asked for my mother’s name and also my father’s… I told him that she was known as Polly, although I did feel a little strange uttering that familiar name in such company. Suddenly they went at it with a will, praying swiftly in Hebrew, which sounded like they were summoning the spirits of the underworld and from time to time within the intense network of Hebrew verbiage I heard them utter the name ‘Polly’ …

After a few minutes they were done. Polly had been laid to rest as I had hoped. It all seemed a little brief. After a small haggle about the fee, I went outside into the glaring sunlight. I was not yet satisfied, although I did feel proud of having done something. I turned to face the gaunt and most magnificent wall. Its huge Herodian stones were warmed by the early sun. I placed my hands on the stones that so many thousands and tens of thousands had touched and spoken to. I wept quietly, and thanked Polly for everything she had done for me, even down to the sandwiches she made every day for my school lunch. And then it was over.

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