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FringeReview UK 2021

Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied Tunisia

Almeida Theatre

Genre: Drama, Historical, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Theatre

Venue: Almeida Theatre


Low Down

Written by Josh Azouz and directed by Eleanor Rhode, lit by Jess Bernebrg, Sound David Gregory, Design Max Johns, Assistant Designer Maariyah Sharjil, Assistant Director Sepy Baghaei. Casting Ginny Schiller CDG.

Production Manager Daniel Palmer, CSM Chris Peterson, DSM Lorna Seymour, ASM Beth Cotton, Head of Costume Claire Wardroper, Chief Technician Jason Wescombe, Lighting Technician Robin Fisher, Theatre Technician Fraser Craig, Sound Supervisor Bryony Blackler, Production Sound Engineer Mike Woods.  Till September 18th.



So a man buried to his neck in sand is being apologized to by a man ordered to urinate on him. ‘Aim for my mouth’ says his parched friend. Happy Days meets Hitler: My Part in his Downfall? A six-strong cast including Adrian Edmonson suggests it – a wild session with Beckett and Spike Milligan, Nazi helmets scribbled on a napkin.

This being Josh Azouz of The Mikvah Project expect different. Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied Tunisia riffs on jokes, including film ones referenced in its title. And it keeps up more farce than that earlier, delicate play’s jokes. There are helmets, there is a cartoonish characterisation to start, but jinks end up lower and lower.

Written by Azouz and directed by Eleanor Rhode, it’s lit by Jess Bernebrg with a vast sun in various shades staring down for four brief scenes before other lighting intervenes for the two extended ones, the latter after an interval in the 2 hours 30 running-time. The light’s then more spectral, night-lit in keeping with increased naturalism and seriousness; not that it’s absent before, nor a jack-in-the-box surprise later absent.

David Gregory’s sound comes in dramatic exclamation marks, Max Johns’ Design is a clever mix of blocks suggesting Tunisian cityscape, various platforms and even a trunk, another large box opening up a dining space replete with mosaic walls and floor, table with red wine stew and candles, and yes latterly a mikvah, though it’s hardly used. There’s different planes to allow clambering up, and figuratively a tiny perspectival door in one unit, stage-right. Blond wood – blond’s a keyword too – works well against the Almeida’s brickwork.

It’s complicated. The title tells us there’s collaborators – the Germans invade Vichy French Tunisia when the allies invade east of them, in October 1942. They hope Tunisian Arabs will rise up spurred against those Vichy French colonial masters, paradoxically also Nazi-ruled, and join them.

Then there’s Tunisian Jews who like Pierro Niel-Mee’s Victor were forced into labour camps. Arabs were promised swift end to French colonial rule, and this is why Ethan Kai’s Youssef wears uniform and is ordered to a new torture by one of the nicknamed Germans (who gave them out so they’d not be identifiable, already fearful of Operation Torch and the allies poised to win). Youssef tells Victor this is the way to independence. Unsurprisingly Victor doesn’t see it from his snake-eye view.

Snakes? Edmonson is menacingly relaxed Grandma, with a coiled proposition. Where does Victor’s attractive wife live? Daniel Rainford’s Little Fella is the foot-soldier jumping in a lumpen way to everything Grandma barks.

Enough of the history. There’s compulsion and compromise everywhere yet Youssef and Victor are childhood friends, as are their wives in a slightly more sophisticated, less primal way. It’s where Laura Hanna’s Faiza and Yasmin Paige’s Loys hang out with cigarettes a if in some French beach, ignoring a roar overhead and drop of Nazi leaflets. Talk of poo and climaxes and physical intimacy masks an edge of change, where the two can no longer meet as they did.

Azouz’s tone is quizzical, uneasily warm, exploring cusps of friendship and ethnic identity, with sudden self-identification on both sides. Where does Youssef get all his revived nationalism from? Why does Victor now embrace an uncompromising Zionism, picked up with a menacing irony later on by Grandma? And there’s other fissures. Youssef brings three strawberry ices (mint all gone) to Loys and Hanna, but Hanna’s made off and you can tell there’s chemistry here. Hanna too can’t understand why Loys realises that as Jews they’re better off elsewhere. Hanna thinks them all Tunisians. Loys rather paints herself red into a corner later but these instabilities remain, each explored in the second act.

But it’s Victor’s confession that leads Grandma to demand an intimate  dinner with Loys. The consequences, the entry of each of the other characters into the aftermath of that teasing, terrifying, farcical and life-altering evening.

Kai’s Youssef is fresh and you feel open-handed in everything, including his intense pleadings with Loys, and he shows the surprising depths his friend accuses him – to his face and elsewhere – of lacking. He’s sexy too, and you can see Loys’ attraction to him, in mute moments out of another world and almost another play going on simultaneously. Kai’s openness is both attraction and a potentially reason for dismissal.

Niel-Mee’s more stoical, quick-thinking but deeply driven Victor is compromised in a different way, and increasingly uncompromising in his choices. Loys though will have none of this master. Niel-Mee’s brooding presence also tips Loys’ less sheerly hedonistic side towards his more substantial, and – sometimes more compromised than Youssef – reflective character. And unspoken tensions elsewhere must surely be part-trigger to the eruption of violence between the two men at one point, never mind the piss-take.

Hanna’s laid-back Faiza seems Everywoman, with more apparent quotidian concerns who knows more than she lets on, both more generous and perplexed at Loys’ behaviour, hurt at being frozen out of some momentous decision because of a hidden, momentous event. And she has one of her own to announce. Hanna’s character underlines the lack of anti-Semitism in Tunisia amongst Arabs, whereas French Vichy everywhere enacted it long before the Nazis ordered them to.

Azouz’s gift here is to draw out how much closely entwined communities like this quartet are prised apart by historical forces, both invasions and shifting nationalisms. As a microcosm of Jewish-Arab relations, Azouz’s highly original take examines such a moment in an almost pure form, where both communities are oppressed, but where one inevitably will come out dominant come liberation.

Paige’s watchful Loys centre the action. Emerging the decider, the character with agency she twice turns tables and forces the direction of travel, despite all Victor’s suffering – which he initially refuses to discuss – and his kind of Zionism, another budding discord and point of incomprehension for several. Loys it is who’s assailed by her husband’s unbending new-found ideals, and perhaps less than sympathetic companionship, Youssef’s attractions and potential callowness despite and because of that; and dealing with Edmonson’s Grandma.

In the two latter large-scale scenes we see her emerge as the dominant voice too, also pushing Hanna’s Faiza to sad irrelevance despite her offers. It’s gone beyond that. And beyond Youssef too as she tells him, both couples despite others choosing their sorting, are ‘all right’ and ultimately perhaps right too.

There’s instabilities too. Loys expresses surprise that Victor’s been taken to the camps at all. ‘Only poor Jews are being forced’ she exclaims in bourgeois protest. It’s Faiza who prompts her admission: ‘We moved out of the quarter because we didn’t like Jews.’ And When Victor finally confesses his worst horror – a sick man is left out and freezes to a block of ice and Victor licks his block for moisture – it must horribly recall to Loys that moment of strawberry ice-creams he knows nothing of, complicit with lust and mild disbelief at what Victor’s undergone and done. After all the humour, the second act’s horror –  offstage and on – slowly darkens with the lighting.

Paige negotiates each with a different temperature, and is one stage nearly all the time after the first four brief scenes. In the fifth scene and partly in the sixth she negotiates Edmonson’s a brilliant mix of charm and veiled venom, a viper hinting fangs, this not being a trope but a reptile he uses, a ‘trust in me’ on Zyklon B – his original toured with mobile gas chambers.

It’s both horrible and darkly funny, all the foregoing humour in nastiness stripped away to terror that disdains to pounce, just yet; as Paige’s Loys finds the emotional and moral power to resist Grandma on several fronts at once.

Grandma’s a carefully-cut-out take on Nazi officialdom with some quirks of his own. Functionally though he can’t grow, but emerges with all his offers. There’s a touch  of Moira Buffini’s debut Gabriel (1997), the clever English-speaking Nazi Oberst in Jersey – also in 1943. Despite obvious caricature Edmonson’s Grandma enjoys a dash of depth and nuance, with sudden possibilities opening up: all relished by Edmonson.

Azouz’s language here too grates with savage brilliance: ‘Never before being near the warmth of a Jewess’ is how Grandma sibillates his charm, one of abject terror for Loys. When he dons Victor’s white linen wedding-suit like an outrageous impersonator who’s broken in, he seems to inhabit the dead like those who stole gas-victims’ clothes. Victor though is not dead.

Rainford’s part, the smallest, adds the bumbling menace to Edmonson’s urbane so-reasonable villain. Little Fella with Rainford is able to nuance degrees of alarm of his own, an unease, overwhelmed by his country’s choices.

It’s choices opening up towards the end several characters make or offer, and a defining one for more than Tunisians. Despite its edgy tone, Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied Tunisia offers a profound parable for co-existence and its sometime impossibility, perpetually skewed by others’ disruptions. Or as the sound here suggests, the cacophony of history. There’s also how many are forced part through sheer terror under an often-parodied tormentors’ yoke. Most, how people and peoples come together and divorce. Yet the final moments point to something very different, all the more because unlooked-for.