Israelis swapped the beach for The Beatles and Bissli for bangers and mash as the first London in Tel Aviv festival brought a taste of Britain to the Mediterranean coastline.
While fears abound over the potential impact of a Jeremy Corbyn government on bilateral relations, cultural ties were celebrated with a four-day extravaganza of music, comedy, dance and sport attended by tens of thousands of Tel Avivians.
Highlights of the event included the world premiere of a new show by the Reduced Shakespeare Company, club nights by top British DJs and a football match between Special Olympics GB and Israel.
“It’s been amazing and we were delighted with the sizes of the audiences. We relied upon the support of individuals who believe that politics has no place in the cultural world and that freedom to express oneself through the arts should not be withheld,” said festival founder Marc Worth.
“It was established to showcase the diverse and exceptional talent that these two vibrant cities have to offer.”
For three nights, the square housing the Tel Aviv Museum of Art played host to a free open air food and music festival supported by the municipality, with trucks serving bangers and mash, fish and chips (with hummus, naturally) as well as other treats, such as alcoholic ice cream.
Marina Shtir knew she had to make the journey from Ashkelon as soon as she saw the event advertised online. “I’m a fan of British culture – I love all the television series from London and have been a big fan of George Michael and the Beatles since I was a teenager,” she said.
“I hope the festival will be repeated in future years, perhaps with a section about the history of the British people. I was in London about eight years ago, but this makes me want to go back.”
While the weather bore little resemblance to plummeting temperatures back home, revellers posed in front of replica red phone boxes and sampled a variety of English beers – with some trying out their finest English accents after a pint or two.
Crowds swelled to more than 1,000 as Queen tribute act Rockville took to the stage. “We heard the music from the street,” said student Roni. “Everyone is having fun. It’s good to see people united and dancing with their kids.”
Virgin Atlantic, the festival’s headline sponsors, which recently started a new route from London, set up a makeshift airport lounge, where cabin crew and keen surfer Anuli hailed the city’s “fantastic vibe”. She added: “Some corners of Tel Aviv remind me of London, some of Miami. You don’t see this side of Tel Aviv in Britain.”
The festival kicked off with a spellbinding dance performance conceived by London-based Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter that brought an extended standing ovation.
The Reduced Shakespeare Company returned to Israel for the first time in nearly two decades to perform Hamlet’s Big Adventure – complete with references to burekas and rugelach and even a brief rendition of Hava Nagila. Described as a “hysterical (and completely fictional) prequel to Hamlet”, the festival brochure told audiences: “If you like Shakespeare you will like this show. If you hate Shakespeare you’ll love this show.”
Austin Tichenor, who co-wrote and performed in the play, described the Israeli audiences as “lovely and friendly”, adding: “I was a little surprised most of the cultural references landed.” Despite the movement calling on artists to boycott Israel, he said “no one ever questioned it”.
He said: “It’s better to have people talking. All I can do is entertain, and it’s nice to be able to entertain people around the world.”
He is now hoping the show will come to the Edinburgh Fringe for its UK premiere. The cast were surrounded by locals hoping for photos after the show, including professional translator and Shakespeare fan, Lirit Zindani, who said: “People always ask me to help them improve their English for business or other reasons. It is a growing necessity that can’t merely be satisfied by learning basic grammar rules. Culture has a major role in connecting people around the world.”
Elsewhere, young audiences partied into the early hours on Friday and Saturday nights to the beats of 10 visiting British DJs and bands at uber-cool venue Teder.
Piers James, among those to perform, said: “Tel Aviv is one the greatest cities I’ve ever been to. The people, the food, the energy and whole vibe was incredible.
We made history in Teder and can’t wait to come back and do it all again.”
It was in Boris Johnson’s trade mission as London mayor where the seeds of a cultural exchange between the two cities was born – and led to Tel Aviv in London Festival in 2017. Last week’s return leg – put together by sibling producers Tali and Yoav Tzemach – was also backed by UJIA, the Wolfson Foundation and Nissim Levy.
Worth is now hoping to bring the festival back to Tel Aviv in 2021 with a number of high-profile acts. It was a wish echoed by Tel Aviv’s Mayor, Ron Huldai, who said in kicking off the festival last Wednesday: “We are very different in our histories, in size and number of citizens but… we have common values. I hope some of the performers will stay on to enjoy our beautiful city.”
Audiences also enjoyed iconic British films, a series of talks linking food and tech and shows by artists Karen Russo and Rachel Maclean. World-renowned cellist Natalie Clein joined pianist and conductor Gil Shohat for a recital, saying later: “It’s always very exciting for me to come to Israel and be a little part of the musical culture there. It feels uniquely special to play pieces like Bloch’s Three Scenes from Jewish Life for an Israeli audience.”
British Ambassador Neil Wigan, who hosted a reception for the performers, told Jewish News: “Tel Aviv is lucky to have this event. I’m delighted about how excited Israelis are by British culture and by this event. The replies have been even more positive than expected, even to British food.”
Praising Worth as someone who “gets stuff done”, he added: “I’m shamefully putting pressure on Marc to ensure this is not the last of its kind.”
Expressing delight at its involvement, a spokesperson for Virgin said: “London is one of the most popular destination among the Israeli public, and one of our goals in this new route is to bring closer the two cultures. We’re hoping to have another successful project like this soon.”