Yo Zushi on Yukio Ninagawa and the Israel boycott

A few weeks ago, I interviewed the Japanese theatre director Yukio Ninagawa for the New Statesman magazine. [You can find the online version of the full conversation here.] Ninagawa was in London with his Japanese-language production of William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, which ran at the Barbican between 29 May and 2 June.

Little attention seems to have fallen so far upon his next major project, a staging of Euripides’ The Trojan Women, currently being developed in collaboration with the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv. I asked him about the production, which opens in Israel in December:

YZ: What do you hope to achieve?

Ninagawa: We are gathering together Jews, Palestinians and Japanese in one place and putting on a play. Each group has its own political views and inevitably there’s going to be some friction – I have seen it myself at our preparatory workshops. In a way, it’s a microcosm of real life. I know that staging a play may be a small gesture, like adding a small pebble to a heap of stones. It might not have a grand meaning, but these pebbles can accumulate. It’s a way of expressing hope. For me, this is how to do it.

What do you think about the call for a cultural boycott of Israel? There were protests [in May] at the Israeli Habima Theatre’s staging of The Merchant of Venice at the Globe in London . . .

I think it’s a futile action. However much your opinions differ, you have to allow the work to make its case. Disrupting things before this can happen is a mistake, because you’ll lose the opportunity to share your ideas about what you believe in.

Desmond Tutu, former archbishop of Cape Town and patron of a Holocaust remembrance centre in South Africa, once argued: “Just as we said during apartheid that it was inappropriate for international artists to perform in South Africa in a society founded on discriminatory laws and racial exclusivity, so it would be wrong for Cape Town Opera to perform in Israel.”

After a visit to the Holy Land in 2002, Tutu said: “It reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa.” If conditions in Israel are an echo of the old apartheid (an assessment confirmed in 2007 by UN special rapporteur John Dugard: “Israel’s laws and practices certainly resemble aspects of apartheid”), should the old tactics not be applied?

Boycott is a proven method of organised dissent. Even in Japan, where, according to a journalist friend, mainstream awareness of Middle East politics remains dim, calls to draw attention to the Israeli government’s horrific treatment of Palestinians are beginning to be heard. In February, the Japanese cosmetics company Daito Crea announced that it would stop distributing products made in illegal West Bank settlements; Muji cancelled plans to open a branch in Tel Aviv in 2010.

Is Ninagawa correct in his assessment of BDS?

Yo Zushi is a musician based in London. His most recent album, Notes for “Holy Larceny”, was released by Pointy Records (£9.99) 

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