Israel's 'daring' theatre fest turns 40

Acre (Israel) (AFP) –


Oded Kotler made his way discretely through the crowd taking in the acrobats and clowns performing at a festival in Acre, an ancient city along the Mediterranean in northern Israel.

Casually air on a warm autumn evening, the 82-year-old moved anonymously through the festival-goers.

But it is Kotler who, together with others, founded the artistic gathering 40 years ago.

In the decades since, the Akko Festival for fringe theatre has become an institution for alternative and street performances in Israel, and this year's edition was expected to welcome some 120,000 visitors before closing on Thursday.

"I was tired of institutional theatre," Kotler told AFP.

"I wanted to do something more experimental to inspire the younger generation with a new creative impetus."

Acre is in many ways an appropriate location.

The coastal city is home to both Jewish and Arab Israelis, the descendants of Palestinians who remained on their land after the creation of Israel in 1948.

It offers works that mix genres and disciplines, bringing "something different," said Sophia Nolar, a 30-year-old director.

"The audience seems to like that," she said.

- 'Not every day' -

During the festival coinciding with the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, commemorating the Jewish journey through the desert after the exodus from Egypt, the city is bustling.

"We come every year. It's interesting -- it's not something you see every day," said Eyad Tamish, 39.

The resident of the city -- known in Hebrew as Akko and Arabic as Akka -- came to "admire the show" with his young son Ibrahim, perched on his shoulders, and his wife Hana.

Some 60 Israeli and foreign troupes -- from Italy, China, India and the United States -- presented their creations over four days on stage and in the alleys of the ancient city.

Archaeological sites such as the Hospitaller Fortress dating back to the Crusader times served as an atypical setting for colourful performances.

Born in Tel Aviv in 1937, Kotler is an actor and director.

In 1967, he won best actor at the Cannes Film Festival for his role in the film "Three Days and a Child" by director Uri Zohar.

A pillar of the Israeli arts scene, he directed the Haifa Theatre from 1970 to 1978 and the prestigious Israel Festival from 1985 to 1990.

He often evokes in his work the country's political situation, including the conflict with the Palestinians.

Such reflections have made him at times a target of critics on the right who see him as a condescending left-wing artist.

In 2015, he came under fire after seeming to compare those who vote for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party to a "herd of cattle chewing straw and munching on cud."

- 'Country being stupid' -

Although he founded the festival, Kotler was presenting his own piece for the first time this year because "he has things to say."

"The Curse" is based on three ancient Greek tragedies: Aeschylus's "Agamemnon", Sophocles's "Electra" and Euripides's "Iphigenia in Aulis."

While focusing on ancient Greece, it has relevance for today, he said.

"This is the story of a country that is doing something stupid, in this case embarking on the Trojan War, because it is what the king has decided, considering that the country belongs to him," said Kotler.

It is a thinly veiled allusion to Israel's current government and right-wing politicians.

"We almost never speak of the (Palestinian) territories, reconciliation and peace anymore," he said, with regret.