FringeReview UK 2019
Amos Gitai appears in his own interactive theatre piece which he writes, directs, and designs. It combines theatre, film, video-making and memoir to build a part homage to Camus’ Letters to a German Friend, which appears as one text. A Letter to a Friend in Gaza. Additional music’s by Alex Clause with surtitles by Ibtisam Ammouri. Assistant director’s Ayda Melika and Production manager Laurent Truchot. Till November 24th.
A one-night reading of Efratia Gatai’s Correspondences will take place at 6pm on Sunday 24th November.
One of the Coronet Theatre’s recurring themes is examining Jewish experience through multiple media. Above all in the entrancing, harrowing Haim: In the Light of a Violin back in 2016.
Amos Gitai, who appears in his own interactive theatre piece, brings gifts as theatre, film and video-maker and memoirist to a part-hommage to Camus’ Letters to a German Friend, which appears at the end of an odyssey of techniques. A Letter to a Friend in Gaza references too the legacy his mother Efratia Gitai left in her fascinating Correspondence 1929-94: essential reading for this show, it’s on sale in the inimitable foyer of this theatre.
The set’s simple enough when it emerges in this stripped-back circular stage. Liminal silhouettes apparate with an amplified violin, joined later by accordion and a kind of techno-oud to edge a sonic nimbus out of darkness. A projection screen’s fronted by a long conference table with mics where four actors gradually converge, with three musicians around them. Cameras project the actors – with surtitles when a text is recited.
That’s after the first video, which dramatizes the massacre of 100,000 Jews and capture of 97,000 (of whom 11,000 starved to death) with the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. It’s all Roman helmets silhouetted against flames with screams and sword-scrapes. Then charred rubble, grasses blowing.
We cut to an extended heli-view of tanks churning grass sliced criss-cross like the Somme; an Israeli Salisbury Plain exercise in fact. It’s irritatingly drawn-out, till you realize this circling is the point. The antimonies of Roman then Israeli occupation blare stereotypically. Both clips are deliberately outsized, even brash, at odds with delicacy elsewhere; though setting that off with a more inclusive take on nationalism, empire and propaganda. There’s a return through footage from the Gaza side later.
Informing all this is a spine crafted with short texts: it arches bonily through the video and music-making, the last functioning as pause and refrain on poems. We’re being taken through the ruins, minding our footing on rubble, scorched scrolls, aisles of the dead and partly living.
Building towards Camus’ excoriating Letters, which appears as the final text, Gitai assembles both video and texts as the work proceeds. Camus’ premise is the difficulty in reconciling with a German friend in 1943, whilst enduring occupied Paris as a Resistance member. The parallels and sharp irreconcilables couldn’t be clearer, at a moment when the Oslo Peace Accord of 1993 has finally been declared dead.
The great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish is the most referenced. His precise meditations evoke butterflies and oil as metaphors, recited in the original and like all texts projected in English. There’s one-offs from Emile Habibi, Amira Hass, Yizhar Smilansky and Nobel Prize-winning Wislawa Szymaborska whose wry lyricism preludes the Camus.
Throughout, there’s a contrapuntal gathering-in of four performers, two Israeli, two Palestinian: Yael Abecassis, Gitai himself, Clara Khoury, and Makram J. Khoury. Musicians Alexey Kochetjov, Bruno Maurice and Kioomars Musayyebi scour the verbally rich envelope with their three instruments. A musical analogy would be Cristobel Morales and other polyphonists sung by the Hilliard Ensemble bouncing off Jan Gabarek’s sax. Words themselves might seem too stark.
Questions certainly are and as the meditations move towards bitter apotheosis they articulate current strife more precisely, more uncomfortably. Gitai’s non-literary texts are uncompromising too. ‘How can you justify replicating your own oppression and by implication claim to be the master race?’ ‘How can you, an Israeli soldier, justify this to your children?’ This flays rather than makes parallels, Gitai posing them with integrity and courage.
For us, this focus can discomfit. There’s no tackling of anti-Semitic or Islamophobic tropes: but that’s outside the scope of this avowedly secular meditation, tackling secular – sometimes mutual – oppression.
Gitai’s curating hope from the ruins, fragile interrogatory fragments that impel the audience to construct a narrative: bar the Camus gesture there is none. Letter’s decisively not performative, but its theatricality lies in hypnotic integrity, an additive rhythm that impels you. Because you’re gripped in its almost sacramental atmosphere, you make choices, select and attach memories.
That’s the process to ensure you’ll not forget this, sure, but the arguments too, visceral experience behind it; the words. If occasionally process – those films – seems otiose, the work’s overall power is unaffected.
At 90 minutes this mightn’t alter views, but how we experience conflict, the embedding of poetry, music, some visuals, within (at least two) threatened cultures should scallop around the edge of any mind and turn up the volume.