Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Asya Sosis: The Rubber Merchants

By | Published on Friday 31 December 2021

I was intrigued when I found out about ‘The Rubber Merchants’, a 1970s play I hadn’t previously heard of, which is by Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin and is being staged by Gamayun Theatre at the Old Red Lion this month.

It’s a comedic, absurdist-inspired piece with sobering themes, and this production brings the play into the present, setting the latter part of the action in contemporary times.

To find out more about ‘The Rubber Merchants’ I spoke to the show’s director, Gamayun Theatre founder Asya Sosis.

CM: Can you start by telling us about the narrative of ‘The Rubber Merchants’ – what story does it tell?
AS: ‘The Rubber Merchants’ tells a story of Bella, Shmuel and Yohanan, three lonely people in their 40s, who, despite the failures of life, still dream of the ultimate happiness: money, love and sex.

One fateful evening at a pharmacy, they all get a chance to make their dreams come true. Sadly, it doesn’t go as planned, and they part for the next 20 years. It is only when they’re all 60 that they get that chance once more, and again one evening at a pharmacy.

CM: What themes does the play explore?
AS: The play explores the theme of what it means to live a life of no risks, the condom being the central metaphor. All three characters could have been happy, had they only made themselves vulnerable, given up a bit of money or spoken up about how they truly felt. One of the biggest questions asked in the text is whether it’s truly the case that there’s always a next time.

CM: It’s described as a ‘tragifarce’ – can you expand a bit on what to expect from the play in terms of its setting, genre and style?
AS: Despite posing a very serious philosophical question, the playwright approaches the narrative with great humour. The characters often suddenly break into song, repeat themselves over and over, and generally pick the oddest ways to speak of love or sex.

Written in the 70s, the play can be said to have been inspired by the absurdists and existentialists of the 20th century. In fact, Levin was often referred to as Israeli Beckett. Armed with a unique sense of humour and rather ridiculous turns of phrase, Levin portrays the most tragic story of a life unlived in the funniest way.

CM: As you say, it’s a play written in the seventies – what resonance will it have for contemporary audiences and why did you decide to do this production of it now?
AS: A sign of a true masterpiece is that it is always relevant, no matter how many centuries pass. ‘The Rubber Merchants’ is just that, it unearths the most human trait: fear of change, fear of risk.

That fear is not always justified, but in the setting of a world pandemic, it is a very hard question to ask: even though the danger is real, life really is threatened, should we or should we not still live to the fullest?

What kinds of risks should we take? And what are the consequences of putting our lives on hold for too long?

CM: Your press release suggests it’s a ‘recalibrated’ staging of the play – what is meant by that? Have you made changes to the original work?
AS: Yes, we have taken a couple of liberties with the original work. The text is fifty years old, set in Israel of that period, and some of the references were outdated.

For example, one of the characters constantly refers to Texas as the land of his dreams of sexual conquest. Was Texas truly viewed that way in the 70s in Israel? I’m not sure it would matter to a British audience today. It certainly means nothing to all the cast and crew from many very different cultures of this show. So we decided to change Texas to Odessa, a town in Ukraine.

We have also updated the songs, as we chose to set the show in the 1990s in act one and modern day in act two, so the popular music genres would be different. In fact, our composer wrote such catchy tunes, that even though the lyrics are about condoms and sex, it gets stuck in your mind.

We have now produced the songs and will soon be putting them on Apple Music and Spotify.

CM: Can you tell us about the playwright Hanoch Levin?
AS: Levin was the most famous playwright of Israeli theatre. Whenever anyone mentions theatre in Israel, the first name that comes to mind is Hanoch Levin. But it wasn’t always so.

In his time Levin was considered extremely provocative, and some of his plays, performed on stage in the late 20th century, would often make the audience shout and curse the actors. On occasion people even threw chairs at the cast.

Often compared to Beckett and Pinter, Levin had a unique sense of humour, perhaps influenced by his Eastern European roots. Despite being fairly unknown in the UK, Levin is widely celebrated in Israel and well-known in Eastern Europe.

CM: Can you tell us about your cast?
AS: When casting for the show, we looked for notably younger actors, as we believe the characters are frozen in time, in their own childishness.

We have Hadas Kershaw, a French-Israeli actress, playing Bella Berlow, a pharmacist, who has a lot of love to give at the right price.

Joseph Emms is a British actor playing Shmuel Sproll, a failed singer, whose father left him an inheritance of 10,000 packs of condoms, that he is now desperately trying to get rid of.

Tom Dayton plays Yohanan Tsingerbai, a stingy clerk, who hopes to get love and admiration from the beautiful pharmacist Bella, but hopefully for a bargain.

CM: Can you tell us about Gamayun Theatre? What are its aims and ethos?
AS: Gamayun is an international artist-led theatre company and acting studio. We create multicultural, evocative theatre that’s relevant to society today. Cross-cultural bridge-building is at the heart of our work, as we collaborate with artists around the world for our performances and acting courses.

Our mission is to create innovative and beautiful performances that inspire and enthral our audiences.

CM: Finally, about you? How did you come to be working in the arts? Is this the career you always wanted to pursue?
AS: I didn’t always want to work in theatre. Originally I thought film was what interested me. I completed a whole Practical Filmmaking degree before I realised what truly interests me in storytelling is to do with the immediacy of the performance. The exchange an actor can have with the audience only in a show performed live. That’s where I feel the magic.

My parents sent me to study in Britain, because in Ukraine it’s considered the highest standard of education, art and freedom of speech. But I never forgot my roots and my culture. What I want to do is to share Britain with Ukraine, and vice versa. I think there’s so much both of these cultures could learn from each other.

CM: What plans and ambitions do you have for the future, for both yourself and the company?
AS: My plan is to continue making multicultural projects in the UK and Ukraine and, hopefully, in other countries and cultures, to learn all kinds of theatre and unite it in my practice.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
AS: Currently I’m in the planning stages of two projects for next year in Ukraine, a performance piece on the tragedy of Babiy Yar in Kyiv, and a Christmas show. I am also developing a one-man show in English based on ‘The Iliad’ about war and loss.

‘The Rubber Merchants’ is on at the Old Red Lion Theatre from 11-29 Jan. See the venue website here for more information and to book tickets.

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