The Gesher Theatre is an Israeli theatre company, established in 1991 in partnership with a number of supporters, including the Jewish Agency, the Ministry of Education and Culture, and the municipality of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. Made up of a large number of immigrants from Russia, it is one of the few troupes in the world to perform bilingually - both in Russian and Hebrew - and, in the last 30 years, has gained a reputation not just for its excellent productions but its ability to ‘bridge the gap’ between the two cultures.
Gesher (which, aptly, means ‘bridge’ in Hebrew) was founded by a well-known and successful artistic/stage director from Moscow, by the name of Yevgeny Arye. In 1991, along with a group of fellow actors, he immigrated to Israel and, shortly afterward, established the theatre company. By all accounts, it was an unusual time. The Gulf War had broken out that summer which means that the actors were balancing rehearsals (from Hebrew texts translated into Cyrillic) with running to public shelters, as sirens blared, warning citizens of impending missile attacks.
To much astonishment, two months after the war ended, their production of Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” aired, to great acclaim. By August, the company was being referred to by the newspaper Dvar Hashavua, as “The Russian Miracle of Israeli Theatre.” The die was cast.
Subsequent Performances in the 1990s
A year later, Gesher staged ‘Molière’ in Hebrew at the Zurich Festival. "The Idiot" (a 19th-century Russian play by Doestyevsky) won the Meir Margalit Theatre Prize in 1993, after which it was shown in the UK and entered in a competition for best play. After such fine performances and only two years ‘in business’, Gesher was awarded the status of a ‘public theatre’ in Israel.
As well as adapting the works of European and Russian master playwrights, in 1994 they dealt with one of the most difficult subjects of all (particularly for Israelis) - the Holocaust. The production ‘Adam Resurrected’ by Alex Chervinsky was based on a novel by Yoram Kanium and played in Austria, Switzerland, and eventually Germany. As German media experts themselves put it, the play ‘shook’ the public.
Hot on the heels of this success, in 1996, the play ‘City – Odessa Stories’ opened in Israel. This was an adaptation of several stories by the author Isaac Babel and deals with a Jewish ‘underworld’ in Odessa on the eve of 1914 and the First World War.
Two years later, in 1998, they opened a workshop for young Israeli actors, hoping to build their careers with the help of this innovative troupe, and the following year, the artistic director of the Bochum Theatre in Germany, Herr Haussmann, was invited to Israel to direct Schiller’s “Intrigue and Love”. The play was a tremendous success and culminated in Israel being represented at the ‘Schiller Festival’ in Mannheim.
From Strength to Strength in the 21st Century
In 2002, Gesher debuted “The Slave” by the famed Polish-American Yiddish writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer. It eventually scooped five nominations for the Israel Theatre Prize. That September, Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill’s ‘Threepenny Opera’ opened, under the leadership of Adolph Shapiro, a famous Russian director. The following year, they staged another Bashevis Singer play - ‘Shosha’ - which was loved by audiences and received outstanding reviews.
Harking back to its origins, in the spring of 2005, under Yevgeny Arye, “Variations for Theater and Orchestra” opened, showcasing old Russian songs. Later that month, ‘Shosha’ was taken to Moscow and opened at the Sovremennik Theatre, at a festival that commemorated 60 years since victory over the Nazis. Other notable successes have included the adaption of Israeli novelist David Grossman’s classic novel ‘See Under: Love”, Noel Coward’s “Design for Living” and the monologue ‘Hezi” by the Israeli writer Yehezkel Lazarov.
In 2018, Gesher set off on a tour of North American, to mark Israel’s 70th birthday. There, they performed ‘The Dybbuk’ by Ansky (in Jewish folklore, a ‘dybbuk’ is a malicious spirit and, arguably, this play is one of the great Yiddish masterpieces). ‘The Tunnel’ - a satirical play about the emotional repercussions of two Palestinians meeting two Israeli soldiers whilst trapped underground - was also performed on this tour, and received very well.
‘Village’ was another outstanding success by the Gesher troupe and after a critically acclaimed run in Israel left on a world tour. Set in 1940’s Palestine, before the establishment of the State of Israel, it tells the story of a group of villagers and their trials and tribulations, all through the eyes of Yossi, a naive teenager.
Today, the Gesher Theater is one of few bilingual theatres in the world. The troupe performs both in Russian and Hebrew, although it’s fair to say that, 30 years after its establishment, more of the productions are staged in Hebrew. Nevertheless, the fact that actors are often rehearsing in three languages (Hebrew, Russian and English) simultaneously is quite a sight to behold and a testament to the unique way it functions. And, much like the first play ever put on, back in 1991, Gesher remains committed to the idea of fusing original, modern themes with the principles of 19th-century Russian theatre.
Without a doubt, the Gesher Theatre has made an enormous cultural contribution, not just in Israel but around the globe. Its play, many of which have Jewish themes, has helped audiences explore and understand better their own journeys. The troupe has put on a number of traditional plays by Yiddish writers (including ‘ The Dybbuk’ and ‘Shosha’) and, in general, has made an enormous contribution to Jewish culture. This, in turn, has helped create a closer relationship between Israel and the rest of the world. Dynamic, innovative, and internationally acclaimed, no wonder the Gesher Theatre has been awarded the Israel Prize.
Today, Gesher continues to offer audiences a wide variety of performances - from contemporary Israeli plays (think Meir Shalev’s ‘A Pigeon and a Boy’) to Russian classics (such as Chekov’s ‘Cherry Orchard’) performing in Hebrew with Russian and English subtitles, As a troupe, Gesher continues not to compromise on its art, has remained distinctly non-commercial and continues to take books that many think cannot be adapted, and transform them into productions that leave the audience open-mouthed. They are a troupe not to be missed, on any visit to Jaffa.
The Gesher Theatre: 03 515-7000, www.gesher-theatre.co.il/en