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Det Kongelige Teater
Alexandrinsky Theatre
The National Theatre of Scotland
Národní Divadlo


Dates: 17 / 11 - 18 / 11 / 11

The first Hebrew language theatre company was founded in 1912 in Bialystok by the initiative of two teachers, Nahum Zemach and Hanna Rovina. A group of dozen or so amateur actors trained under Menahem Gnessin, a non-professional director from Palestine, creating several theatre performances. In 1913, it presented Listen, Israel to the members of the 9th Zionist Congress in Vienna. World War I halted the group’s activities for several years.

In 1917, the company arrived in Moscow, where amidst mounting obstacles, it managed to set up a permanent venue. A small building in the Nizhny Kislovsky Pereulok quickly became home to experimental theatre art, and the vibrant cultural center of the Jewish minority.

Thanks to Zemach’s determination, the company started to operate under the auspices of the Moscow Art Theatre (MCHAT), whose manager, Constantin Stanislavsky, arranged for the group to be trained by his close collaborator and theatre director, Yevgeny Vakhtangov. In the shadow of the Revolution and amidst daily struggles for survival, the members of the company began their professional training. On Oct 8, 1918, after several months of studio rehearsals, the premiere performance of An Evening of Studio Works, a collection of four one-act plays, took place. This date is considered founding moment of the Habima Theatre (Hebrew: “The Stage.”)

In 1919, the premiere of David Pinsky’s dramatic poem The Eternal Jew directed by Vakhtang Mchedelov transformed the stage in the Nizhny Kislovsky Pereulok into one of the most visited theatre venues in Moscow. Habima’s trendiness in artistic and intellectual circles attracted the attention of communist authorities – the so-called Jew-section of the infamous Department IV of the NKVD described the theatre as a ‘Zionist-bourgeois establishment’ and ‘nest of counterrevolution,” and called for its immediate shutdown. However, the proposal met with the rejection by People's Commissar for Nationalities' Affairs, Joseph Stalin. It was his decision that authorized the theatre's creation.

In January 21, 1922 the premiere of The Dybbuk by S. Ansky took place. Performed in the Hebrew translation by the national poet Hayim Nahman Bialik, the production – directed by Vachtangov with scenography by Natan Altman and music by Joel Engel – is commonly perceived as the greatest moment in Habima’s history. Hanna Rovina’s performance in the role of Lea became legendary and now ranks among the greatest icons in contemporary Jewish culture. Vachtangov’s production, which had been profoundly inspired by constructivism and expressionism, instantly placed Habima on the map of important centers of the European avant-garde.

Unfortunately, within just a few months of the premiere, Vachtangov died. Without his leadership, the company was not longer able to maintain its high artistic profile. New productions, based mostly on biblical or mythological subjects, ended up being more or less successful copies of The Dybbuk. An attempt to include in the repertory new plays inspired by the daily life of the diaspora proved unsuccessful.

On January 24, 1926, the company embarked on a world tour (performances in Riga, Warsaw, Paris, London, New York) from which it was never to return. In Warsaw, the enthusiastic reception caused the company to prolong its stay and give unplanned performances in several Polish cities. The success had less to do with the phenomenon of a Hebrew theatre from bolshevist Russia, than with a keen interest on part of the Polish audience in the newest achievements of contemporary Russian theatre avant-garde. When this curiosity waned over the next few years, Habima’s subsequent tours in Poland in 1930 and 1938 turned out to be less successful.

At the end of the 1927 tour, the company split apart—artists who gathered around Zemach chose to pursue their career in New York (a dream that was never to materialize), while Rovina and others decided to settle down in Palestine, where they could perform with no language barrier to contend with. Nevertheless, the beginnings in Tel Aviv, where the company’s former name -- the Habima Theatre in Moscow – attracted a great deal of criticism, proved uneasy.

In the 1930s, a number of acclaimed foreign artists worked at Habima. Twelfth Night, or What You Will directed by Mikhail Chekhov (1930) and The Merchant of Venice directed by Leopold Jessner (1931) rank among the greatest achievements of this period. Unfortunately, over the next three decades, the company led by Zwi Friedlander succumbed to artistic crisis. The newly established Habima’s acting school only worsened the situation--its graduates, discouraged by old-fashioned acting style and lack of opportunities in a company led by the Collective, turned to the newly opened Cameri Theatre. Another major problem was the lagging construction works of Habima’s new venue in Orchestra Square in the center of Tel Aviv. Its design by Oskar Kaufmann had been approved as early as in 1935, whereas construction works were completed no sooner than in 1945.

The first major break-through arrived in the 1947/48-theatre season. The spectacular success of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King directed by Tyrone Guthrie and its well-received world tour converged in time with the Israeli Declaration of Independence. Over the next few years, Habima hosted worldwide directors: Alexander Bardini, André Barsac, Sven Malmquist, John Hirsch and Lee Strasberg. In 1958, in commemoration of its 40th anniversary, the Stage in Orchestra Square was awarded the Israel Prize. Since that time it has been considered the national theatre of Israel.

Unfortunately, the soaring reputation did not stave off either mounting financial problems, or personal conflicts within the company. The situation changed for the better in 1969 when the Collective was disbanded and the Ministry of Culture and Education took charge of the theatre. Habima’s subsequent managers sought to refresh the company by replacing merited amateur artists with young, professionally trained actors. The theatre’s repertory began to include contemporary Israeli literature as well as the world’s classic and contemporary drama.

In 1972, Bamartef, a new studio stage intended for formal experiments in theatre art was inaugurated. In 1976, Hanna Rovina, the star of the company, appeared on its stage for the last time as Queen Mother in Shakespeare’s Richard III. In 1978, David Levin, the older brother of the famous playwright, became the artistic manager of the theatre. The same year, the Association of Friends of Habima was established.

The turn of the 20th and 21st century brought a period of intense artistic work marked by Habima’s world tours and its appearances in several prestigious theatre festivals. In 2004, Ilan Ronen took over as the artistic manager. In 2008, the Habima Theatre celebrated its 90th anniversary.

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