Got the Golda touch

Broad­way star To­vah Feld­shuh is bring­ing her ac­claimed por­trayal of the Is­raeli leader to Lon­don. She talks to John Nathan

The Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS & BOOKS -

SH A K E S P E A R E ASKED: “What’s in a name?” To­vah Feld­shuh has the an­swer. “There’s plenty in a name,” says the Broad­way star. “By chang­ing my name I changed the whole land­scape of my life. I didn’t re­alise it then, I was only 18.”

The wo­man born Terri Sue and raised in the af­flu­ent New York sub­urb of Scars­dale, changed her name to To­vah be­cause that was what they called her at Sun­day school — and be­cause her boyfriend at the time thought Terri Sue’s He­brew name sounded much more ex­otic than Terri Sue.

“My break­through roles have come when my name and the roles I play are held as one iden­tity,” says Feld­shuh.

The ac­tress has just got off the plane to Lon­don from New York. She is still in her trav­el­ling clothes — a fig­ure-hug­ging black cat suit, her tiny fe­line frame curled up on a sofa in her ho­tel pen­t­house suite. De­spite the jour­ney, there is no sign of tired­ness.

She speaks in tor­rents, an­swer­ing ques­tions with­out pause even be­fore they are asked. The roles Feld­shuh are talk­ing about are Jewish. Roles like Yentl, which she cre­ated on stage in 1974.

And al­though the word “break­through” seems a mis­nomer for a ca­reer that in­cludes four Tony nom­i­na­tions and award-win­ning per­for­mances in the film Kiss­ing Jes­sica Stein, the ac­claimed TV mini-se­ries Holo­caust and her reg­u­lar ap­pear­ances in the television crime se­ries Law and Or­der, Feld­shuh is also talk­ing about the role to which she most of­ten re­turns — Golda Meir.

William Gib­son’s one-wo­man play Golda’s Bal­cony is not only a por­trait of Is­rael’s for­mer Prime Min­is­ter, but charts the dilem­mas — moral and mil­i­tary — with which she grap­pled dur­ing the Yom Kip­pur War in 1973.

It is a role that de­mands of its ac­tor to play what was for many Is­rael’s great­est leader, and also por­tray the gen­er­als — like Moshe Dayan — and the politi­cians — like US Sec­re­tary of State Henry Kissinger — with whom Meir ne­go­ti­ated her coun­try’s fate.

When the play, di­rected by Scott Schwartz (son of Stephen, the award­win­ning com­poser of Wicked) trans­ferred to Broad­way in 2003, the pro­duc­tion co­in­cided with the war’s 30th an­niver­sary. It ran for 17 months, be- com­ing the long­est run­ning one-wo­man show in Broad­way his­tory. Now it is com­ing to Lon­don.

But there is some­thing Feld­shuh wants to make ab­so­lutely clear. Any­one who saw her in Lon­don a few years ago in her one-wo­man-con­cert calledMin­ing Golda has not seen Golda’s Bal­cony.

The­formerisas­how­shewrote­forher­self, which in­cluded 14 songs from the Great Amer­i­can Song­book. To il­lus­trate, she bursts into one of the show’s num­bers: “Let the river run, Let all the dream­ers wake the na­tion, Come, the new Jerusalem…” And then, just as abruptly, the pow­er­ful voice re­turns to speak­ing mode. “It’s not that show, Ok?” “Ok.” “That show I per­formed two years ago when I had the hon­our of be­ing hired by the UJIA to come and sing a con­cert. Min­ing Golda was all about my in­sights into Golda Meir — how I got the part, my (work­ing) re­la­tion­ship with the play­wright, Golda’s re­la­tion­ship with her older sis­ter; how Ben-Gu­rion in­flu­enced her. It’s a darn good piece, but it is not Golda’s Bal­cony.”

She makes the point with a se­ri­ous­ness that sug­gests there will be trou­ble for any­one who makes that mis­take. “Ok?” “Ok.” Feld­shuh pro­duces a pic­ture of her­self in char­ac­ter as the Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter. The re­sem­blance is un­canny — the round hips, the bul­bous nose, the tightly drawn grey hair.

“I’ve got false legs, a false body, huge breasts — I could do a top­less spread of Miss Oc­to­ber, Novem­ber and De­cem­ber — a wig, age­ing makeup and a fake nose.” In the pic­ture she looks like ev­ery­one’s favourite bubeleleh. Only this ma­tri­arch was re­spon­si­ble for a whole na­tion, not just a fam­ily.

“It’s in­ter­est­ing. That’s what a reviewer said,” says Feld­shuh. She pauses to quote ac­cu­rately a re­view from the The New York Times. “‘She does more than just res­ur­rect Golda Meir, she em­bod­ies an en­tire na­tion.’” If, to the English ear, it sounds im­mod­est to quote good re­views abouty­our­self, for a straight-talk­ing Amer­i­can like Feld­shuh, it is just the plain and sim­ple truth. In New York, enough peo­ple agreed for Feld­shuh to win her fourth Tony nom­i­na­tion and a Drama Desk theatre award.

“Any­way, I love this play. I h o n e s t l y hope this will be my best per­for­mance. That’s what h a p p e n s when a role is al­lowed to mar­i­nate in your soul.”

W h e n Feld­shuh talks about Golda’s Bal­cony, it is with a fer­vency that be­trays not only a com­mit­ment to the work, but to Is­rael too. At one point tears well up as she says: “Is­rael takes the bul­lets for us.” But Feld­shuh re­alises that at­ti­tudes here are very dif­fer­ent from at­ti­tudes in New York.

“I’m thrilled to be do­ing it in Lon­don, but I know that it’s dif­fer­ent here. I’ve been asked to be here for three weeks. On Broad­way I was asked for 17 months. Same play, dif­fer­ent cli­mate. It’s a dif­fer­ent com­mu­nity.” Has play­ing Meir changed her opin­ion abut the Mid­dle East, or the way Is­rael is judged?

“That’s some­thing, the way Is­rael is judged. Some of the big­gest fights I’ve had about the Mid­dle East have been with ac­tors from this coun­try. They’re very pro-Pales­tinian and they do that clas­sic mis­take of com­par­ing Is­rael to apartheid South Africa, which is patently ab­surd and un­ac­cept­able.” “Like who?” “I can’t say.” “Vanessa Red­grave?” “I can’t say. But Vanessa Red­grave has been very good in our coun­try. She has been told to be quiet, I think… Some­body must have sat her down be­cause she’s stopped be­ing so vo­cif­er­ous about it [the Mid­dle East]. Be­cause it was ex­tremely un­pop­u­lar.”

It is be­com­ing clear that for Feld­shuh, play­ing Meir, is not just an­other role. It’s more of a call­ing. “That’s right. I try to em­body her. It’s a very dif­fi­cult piece. But again, I want to em­pha­sise. Any­one who has seen me sing and dance has not seen this play. Ok?”

“Ok.” Golda’s Bal­cony is at the Shaw Theatre, Lon­don NW1 from June 7. Tel: 0871 594 3123

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

To­vah Feld­shuh played Golda Meir ( right, in char­ac­ter)

on Broad­way for 17 months; her UK run is just three weeks. “Same play, dif­fer­ent cli­mate,” she says

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