Writer: Nabil Al-Raee
Directors: Zoe Lafferty &Nabil Al-Raee
Reviewer: James Bartholomeusz
It was difficult to know how to respond last year when, as the Gaza Strip dissolved into a humanitarian nightmare, public opinion in Europe finally decided that Israel had ‘crossed a line’. The events of summer 2014 were horrific and somewhat unexpected, but they were hardly without precedent. The suffering of the Palestinian people has been unremitting, as has Israel’s art of smiling sunnily at the rest of the world while presiding over apartheid in its backyard. Did the war crimes of last year really represent a category difference from what had gone before?
Yet if this experience has provoked a renewed climate of critical intro- and retrospection, then that is something. And with the risk of Palestine once again slipping off the public agenda, the Freedom Theatre’s UK tour of its new production, The Siege, is particularly timely. Playing at ten venues around the country throughout May and June, it is not to be missed.
Writer and director Nabil Al-Raee has settled on an especially emblematic moment in the Palestinian liberation struggle: the 39 days in the 2002 Second Intifada during which the Israeli army – as part of its euphemistically-name Operation Defensive Shield – laid siege to one of the holiest sites in the world, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Several Palestinian fighters had fled into the basilica for cover and found themselves surrounded and trapped inside, along with several hundred priests, nuns and civilians. Wounded, starving and outgunned, the group became symbolic in the eyes of the global media for the failure of the Intifada. The whole of Bethlehem remained under military curfew until those in the church eventually submitted.
All theatre is inescapably political, but such overt ‘Political’ theatre as this always runs the risk of sliding into flat didacticism, soapbox oratory thinly veiled the clothes of drama. This is a risk that The Siege admirably avoids. The six-man cast (half of whom emanate from the Jenin refugee camp) give a stunningly human and surprisingly warm performance, capturing the tangle of the fighters’ emotional responses – moral outrage, claustrophobia, hope, creeping paranoia, enduring good-humour, and the overwhelming sense that their cause cannot be extricated from the actual, day-to-day suffering of their loved ones. At a time when Western perceptions of the Middle East have become dominated by the hysteria over Islamic State, it was a brave and worthy move to present a play that invites empathy with fighters on a human level. Not every Arab who carries a gun is a disaffected fanatic pining for a holy war; there are plenty who ask nothing more than the power to defend their homes from invasion and occupation.
Given the centrality of the concept of home in Palestinian art, the setting of The Siege is no accident. The church is depicted simply as two walls of a cut-out set, hung with religious lanterns and lit in musty amber. Lines of comparison are explicitly drawn between the tyranny of Herod, ordering all boys under two years old to be put to death in order to secure his rule, and that of the Israeli attempts to wipe the Promised Land clean of Arab impurity. Later, the death of the lead fighter – failed by both Western negotiators and the Palestinian Authority – is rendered as the sacrifice of Christ, with his disciples crowded around. The birth-place of the real Christ becomes the death-place of the Intifada, the triumph of the oppressors over the oppressed.
It is gratifying to watch the production in Arabic – even a non-speaker can be pleased that Al-Raee resisted the urge to translate into English for ease of access, and instead speak in the words of the fighters themselves – and a great deal is conveyed through physical rather than verbal performance. However, the surtitle technology could definitely be improved. A tiny screen suspended above the stage, slightly out of sync with the lines spoken, is an irritating distraction.
However, this distraction does nothing to detract from the strength of the performance itself. It is all very well to produce a political play about an event distant in time or space, but the direct link from this cast to the current situation in Palestine is palatable. One would struggle to find a more authentic piece of theatre, or indeed one that speaks to such a brutally urgent case of injustice.
Runs until Saturday 23rd May and then tours until20th June