FringeReview UK 2022
Writer: Sami Ibrahim, Director: Omar Elerian, Designer: Rajha Shakiry, Associate Designer: Ruth Hall, Lighting Designer: Jackie Shemesh, Sound Designer: Elena Peña, Video Designer: Zakk Hein
Assistant Director: Alessandra Davison, Associate Lighting Designer: Lucía Sánchez Roldán, Fight Director: Bret Yount
Stage Managers: Evelin Thomas and Rike Berg.
Till June 1st
‘How many here speak Arabic?’ Three hands go up, including one who didn’t hear the question properly. That’s after a dance-off we’re invited to. Or later on, coffees teasingly offered, so some drink the cool aid on a hot day. It’s not interactive throughout, but if you’re here you’re committed to laughter. And a lot else. Sami Ibrahim’s two Palestinians go dogging is on at the Royal Court till June 1st
‘Your hobbies are limited to Arab Idol and cooking lentils and having sex in fields late at night’ Miltos Yerolemou’s Sayeed tells Hala Omran’s Reem, who’s his wife. In 2043-occupied West Bank there’s fatal ways to get kicks, shot in no-man’s land: ‘but it’s worth it’, they conclude.
They’re here to share a ‘serious play about Palestine’ so the only way is jokes, singing, stand-up, standing up and getting shot. Gassed too (quite a lot of that wafts through) in the Upstairs theatre, normally reserved for shorter or smaller-scaled plays. Not here: at two hours-fifty it’s epic, something you see Downstairs. That participatory element, that immediacy, means Upstairs, even packed as this show is, is right.
Winner of 2019’s UNCUT Political Play Competition Ibrahim, fresh from his Metamorphoses at the Wanamaker Globe last October, carries his theme of transformation, including conversations between the newly-dead, finding homes in new bodies – some of this was cut. Indeed the 108-page text is edited more than most at the printing stage. Some of it rightly from a long Pirandello-like letter the author addresses to the central protagonist Reem near the end.
I believe in the ghosts and they’re mostly still there, including a haunting overlapping duologue between two women towards the close of Act One, which is spellbinding.
Rajha Shakiry’s set is concrete desert, with stage-right given over to two concrete flights of steps where any fragile normality resides, and opposite the largest audience row, actors retrieve things like the OED Sawed continually quotes from and ultimately subverts. And a wheelbarrow of rocks Reem rushes out, tips over and tells (she never asks) Saweed to count. The number of Palestinians killed to Israelis: 1217 to six. These she places like a Neolithic burial, then tips out the approximate number killed since this Fifth Intifada, ordering Saweed to pick them up.
Lit by Jackie Shemesh there’s not only blackouts but a red-and-white pattern drawing over the set like bloodied lace. Elena Peña’s sound conjures the music, gunshots, whistling blasts you’d expect. But not deafeningly in this small space.
Omran’s mostly on stage throughout, Reem contrasting with a firebrand energy her husband Saweed’s exhaustion. It emerges their daughter’s been killed in a sting operation meant for Sayeed. Yerolemou’s the truth-teller, the activist who’s seen the future won’t change, correcting all Reem’s assertions. It doesn’t fuel the way they have sex, but the way they react when their son Jaweed (Luca Kamleh Chapman) is taken for killing a young Israeli soldier – Mai Weisz’s Sara – is complex. Sara too is implicated in a chain of events. But does she want to be there? Reem fights for justice and gets all Palestine involved. Jaweed in Brechtian fashion applies fake blood to his face twice. And gets a massive following on Tick-Tock, which means more to him than anything else. He’s twenty. Why not?
For one thing Jaweed sort of does it, letting a cinder block slip, part game, part anger. His friend – Joe Haddad’s Tariq – begs him not to. And his cousin Salwa (Sofia Danu) is furious. She’s implicated. It has direct consequences for her and indeed before Sara dies she and Salwa engage in a spectral conversation. They enjoy a few more. Tariq gets caught in a unique way, a strange chilling sideshow. Jaweed is released but there’s a curious symmetry later on.
It’s a fine ensemble piece though, with many mock-battles, people repeatedly dancing, fighting and collapsing as they’re shot, and several set-scenes that haunt. Fight Director Bret Yount creates tableaux of conflict and shocks of intimate violence.
The core couple though are the drivers. There’s several reveals you’ll need to see, but in the second act Saweed brings on an Israeli Adam (Philipp Mogilnitskiy) who’s caught trying to go dogging ‘to fuck the people who killed my daughter.’ They both share this but Reem will have none of it. Mogilnitskiy, asked to explain, explodes slowly in a set-piece with ‘fight and fight and fight…’ recalling Caryl Churchill’s repeat of ‘terrible rage’ in Escaped Alone. Here though it’s explicit as Mogilnitskiy strips off and unhinges into history and the ’we fight because you fought us’ trope crucially without apportioning blame. It’s an extraordinary distillation of a mindset.
It’s Mogilnitskiy’s Adam as one of two characters on stage at the end who delivers the author’s letter to Reem; who refuses the Pirandello-esque conclusion, indeed has a plan.
Deadly serious it might be, but this is a bleakly funny play, designed not to preach but provoke, imagine journeys and consequences. There’s many highlights and the seven-strong cast all enjoy moments. Apart from Mogilnitskiy’s, there’s Weisz’s continual apparition, and her disembodied duetting with Danu remains a highlight.
Each have agency, particularly Danu who gets opportunities to rage, fear, lament and hope. Chapman’s chipper part registers more deeply as human implications sink in; Haddad is both marginalised and signalling wildly.
Contradicting Reem, Yerolemou’s Saweed remains a voice of reasoning. Is he right? More deeply implicated as we proceed, he nevertheless counters Reem’s ‘one more push’ default with a laconic bearhug of a performance, a descant of sad notes.
Omran though sings supreme in her registers of passion, brief joys, inflammatory speeches, obdurate belief in the Palestinians as a people, something most British politicians currently obliviate. She’s also very funny, buttonholing the audience and leading off dances that fizzle out as the true cost of the Fifth Intifada make leaden feet.
It’s appropriate we’ve seen many smashed rocks throughout. This is groundbreaking drama, with fearful symmetries and neat peripeteia, despite its shaggy appearance. It rarely flags save towards the end when perhaps a few pauses too many let loss sink in. And there’s still some indulgence over the letter. Elsewhere though the scale of this, with its joshing on a precipice, packs a mighty question that can still knock you off balance.