Tribune Review

June 16, 2009

THEATRE: Creative responses to death and destruction in Gaza

March 29, 2009 12:00 am admin arts

“Go to Gaza, Drink the Sea”, Theatro Technis, London

“Damascus”, Tricycle Theatre, London

THERE have been many attempts to combine visual art installation with theatre, most of them failures. Anyone remember Vanessa Redgrave’s Antony and Cleopatra, complete with portable Balkan bombsite?

Go to Gaza, Drink the Sea is by far the most powerful example I’ve yet seen of a border-crossing theatrical mix. One chokes on a familiar smell – plaster dust – as one confronts an otherwise unimaginable scale of destruction. A towering mountainscape of mashed and whitened shoes dwarfs and awes the entering audience, before the teeming heap brings forth all manner of creative responses to the assault on Gaza.

From this shoe-mountain emerges, swearing, a spiv tunneller with his bag of contraband for corrupt officials; onto its slopes clambers a young man seeking death (based on co-writer/director Ahmed Masoud’s own brother); from its confines rebellious teenagers and toddlers sortie, only to be shelled back inside; and from its depths come the personal memorials of an entire extended family, killed as they took shelter in their home.

BBC reporter and United Nations official, exhausted mother, rescuer shot en route to an ambulance, Israeli refusenik, father brutally and serially bereaved – all are characters issuing forth from this fertile pile, inhabited by an extraordinarily versatile cast assembled apparently in just three days.

A composite voice emerges – profane, witty, desperate and poetic – a voice from Gaza Beach itself, that packed, water-starved refugee camp beside the Red Sea, patrolled by warships “in case it might part to let out a trapped people”.

Songs from Nizar al Issar run counter to the action: singing of the imperative to live and love when the young man seeks death; telling of time become a prison-space and space congealed to stony time, as various characters launch their hasty doomed escapes.

At the close, irony fails. The young man joins a terrifying war dance, waves flag and dies – though with a bitterly sarcastic joke on his lips; his mother is left to her anguish. Fade.

For an English audience, the true story of Masoud’s brother – who volunteered to fight, but Hamas turned him down – might have made a more accessible ending. But a picture of Gaza without fighters would have been a whitewash.

Perhaps in these days it was inevitable (although shaming) that the Zionist Federation should send a senior official to monitor/intimidate the small theatre, or that the Jewish Chronicle should yoke “Go to Gaza” to Caryl Churchill’s recent Seven Jewish Children at the Royal Court, as modern blood libels. But did Time Out really have to use a reviewer from CultureWars, an alias for the bizarre sect Living Marxism, infamous for persistently denying the Bosnian genocide? Culture wars indeed.

Jews for Justice for Palestinians helped to fund the production and I should declare an interest. I’m a JfJfP signatory, although I didn’t know of the play project and attended without ever expecting an experience of this power.

In another week, David Greig’s Damascus might not have appeared so superficial.

It was, after all, written two years ago as a Valentine’s Day comedy of misunderstandings for Glasgow’s Traverse company.

ESOL, the burgeoning industry of English as a Second Language, is a good vehicle to choose for abounding errors. Teacher Paul lands in Syria with a new textbook to sell and a wish that he was in Barbados – unfortunately Greig seems to wish it, too.

The best jokes come when Arab intellectuals burst into their own language, conveyed onstage by rapid, idiomatic

English while Paul limps along in his schoolboy French. The trouble is that

most of the characters are – just like the hapless ex-Soviet transsexual condemned to play endless piano in the hotel lobby – running on autopilot.

At the close of Damascus, as in the other play, humour vanishes and a gun brandishes. Only this time there’s complete lack of effect.  Can we really not get beyond stereotypes of the blundering benevolent Britisher and the dangerous passions of troublesome foreigners?

Amanda Sebestyen


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