A Day of Theatre Workshop with Jenin’s Freedom Theatre

Siege

The word is ‘guilt’. I am in the East End’s Toynbee Studios for a day-long workshop with Palestine’s Freedom Theatre and now four of my fellow participants have to come up with a short improvisation on ‘guilt’, a word I chose. The idea is to capture a flow of events as though filmed on a phone. Faisal Abu Alheja, our twenty-six year old instructor, counts five seconds as the performers twist and plead, then he yells ‘freeze’. The performers meld into a wobbly tableaux, some on their knees, others stretching towards the sky in pain.

Faisal asks, “Have they got it?”

I am laughing along with everyone else in the shabby Art Deco theatre. It looks a lot more fun than guilt feels.

The workshop takes place two days after I watch the group’s new play, The Siege, and I am hoping to discover the secrets of their writing/devising techniques. Faisal is demonstrating something known as ‘playback’ developed in the Sixties as a tool within drama therapy. The artistic director, Nabil Al Raee, says the aim is to share experiences, “free of judgement, authority or ideology.”

He says: “In the legend of Medusa a beautiful woman is raped in the temple. And she is the one who is punished for it. Perseus says, this is why she was turned into a monster, and why he has the right to kill her. No one sees the story from her side: that she is enraged and fighting back.”

The Medusa - the victim of a rape, blamed for fighting back

The Medusa – the victim of a rape, blamed for fighting back

Nabil’s aim is to put stories like Medusa’s centre stage.

Freedom Theatre is the most successful of Palestine’s theatres, hosting visiting companies in its home inside Jenin refugee camp, and working with foreign professionals like Zoe Lafferty, Nabil’s co-director on The Siege. It is a surprise that a company with an international outlook should emerge from the smallest and most rural of the West Bank’s cities, but Freedom Theatre straddles many contradictions. Jenin’s refugees come from the busy Mediterranean port of Haifa, and were driven into internal exile among fields and farmland. The theatre is left-wing and liberal in a conservative city. It promotes non-violent activism, yet many actors were once fighters and the company has never disavowed this history of armed struggle. Finally, it is a company that draws upon drama therapy, though its own focus is purely political. Nabil says: “We have worked with drama therapists, but that is not really of interest to me. We need freedom: that’s the real problem.”

The workshop begins with familiar warm-up exercises, tailored to Palestinian sensibilities. Zoe tells me visiting actors like to run a game with young students entitled, Zip Zap Zop, without knowing that ‘zip’ means penis in Arabic. After warm-up, Nabil introduces a short film about a fighter-turned-actor named Rabea Turkman. The film explores the key idea of Freedom Theatre, that the struggle against Israel must be shifted to the cultural arena. Turkman is criticised for putting down his rifle both by old comrades and even his mother. His story is all the more painful because he collapses and dies on screen from injuries dating back to the Israeli invasion of the West Bank in 2002. Turkman was shot in the stomach and lost a kidney. The short film ends with his funeral, which has none of the careless gunfire that usually accompanies the burial of a fighter. It is unclear whether Turkman won his arguments with friends and family by the time of his death.

Rabea Turkman before his death from kidney failure

Rabea Turkman before his death from kidney failure

Much of Palestinian political art is concerned with the idea that the Palestinians are indomitable: they suffer but they can never be defeated. But in order to embody indomitability, of course, one must always be on the verge of catastrophic defeat. Across Palestine, the events of 2002 resulted in a myriad defeats, and romanticising the resistance without addressing this huge well of distress is not an option. It is why, as Turkman says in his film, there needs to be “a revolution revolution.” The struggle has to change – and the ambiguous ending to Turkman’s film seems to show this.

The truly notable thing about Freedom Theatre is its willingness to launch into the centre of Palestine’s most hotly-contested contradictions; the local vs international, liberalism vs conservatism, violence vs non-violence. If Turkman’s ‘revolution revolution’ ever comes to pass, these are the arguments that will fuel it. The latest play, The Siege, is set in Bethlehem in 2002, when the Israeli army put the city under curfew for six weeks after fighters and civilians took refuge in the Church of the Nativity. In the play, a key argument comes from an unexpected quarter, when a fighter receives an anonymous phone call. A local mother telephones directly to ask him to surrender so she could get her sick son to hospital.

I was in Bethlehem in 2002 and it was then that I first heard the story of the anonymous phone call: in effect, I am seeing it on stage in ‘playback’. It has enormous power in the play. It may presage defeat, but as a moment of unexpected communication it lights up the stage; they talk as equals and the fighter listens, breaks down and agrees to surrender. If the idea of a cultural struggle means anything, it is about opening up and defending the spaces where people are free to think, listen and debate. Freedom Theatre is a lively, obstreperous and energetic group; their great secret is that they are happy to defend these spaces wherever they find them, but also to prise them open where they don’t.

The Picture of Dorian Gray – Too Wilde a Ride?

It's mostly a good moisturising routine, darling.

It’s mostly a good moisturising routine, darling.

Second Squire’s revival of John Osborne’s adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde’s only novel, is a curiosity but well worth catching. Osborne and Wilde, each in their way, revolutionised English theatre and finding the two together is an exciting prospect. Osborne’s script is faithful to the original text: in fact, it is rather too Wilde by half, with its epigrams, philosophy and wit, but this is also a fault of the novel, so at least the audience gets the authentic experience. Wilde delivers a genuine shocker, but he wasn’t shy of seeming pretentious.

Osborne wrote his adaptation for TV – it was broadcast in 1976 with Jeremy Brett as the artist Basil Hallward, and John Gielgud as Lord Henry Wotton, the mouthpiece for all of those Wildean epigrams. The ageless Dorian was played by Peter Firth, best-known now as the spymaster in Spooks, which seems improbable casting until you see pictures of Firth from forty years ago: as a teenager, he was pretty much the picture-book definition of ‘rent’.

Staging a film script inevitably means losing some of the sweep. BBC plays of the 1970s were never especially cinematic, but the White Bear is a small space and there are times when one feels a more cinematic idiom would help the play – especially in the scenes at the East End theatre with the tragic Sybil Vane. The cast coped well with the elaborate language, especially in the scenes between Gray and Wotton, played by Hugh John and Harry Burton, but the supporting cast is good: John MacCormick a soulful Basil Hallward, Lizzie Bourne a compelling Sybil, Michael Kingbury just very very good as the aging aristocrat Lord Fermour.

Dorian is a bright idea for a revival, especially with Dorian on the exam syllabuses. A larger stage, more money, some cutting of the text and some expanded interludes of dance or movement, would help the work breathe. But until it is revived again, go catch it at the White Bear.

Rating: Four Stars (if you’re studying Osborne or Wilde, or interested in their one-off civil partnership)

Stasis – mystery and heart in deep space.

Hey, sis: Stasis.  Naomi Stafford as Ren & Ceridwen Smith as The Hologram

Hey, sista: Stasis-ta.
Naomi Stafford as Ren & Ceridwen Smith as The Hologram

This new play from Emily Holyoake is a pretty classic piece of sci-fi, but try and pick apart quite why it works so well, and it reveals an emotional core that is rare in the genre.

Ren is a stowaway on  a space ship with a shady mission. She emerges from hiding to find the four crew members badly injured and she saves their lives by placing them in suspended animation: the stasis of the title. The action opens a few days later as Ren is trying to piece together the mystery: who sabotaged the ship? The greater mystery for the audience is why Ren stowed away in the first place: what is the bond between her and the female ship’s captain, and why has she come so far to apologise? These two mysteries create the suspense that sustains a 90-minute play with a cast of only two: Naomi Stafford as Ren and Ceridwen Smith as a maintenance ‘Hologram’.

Stafford holds the attention both through the routine of her day, and the long arc of her lonely breakdown. Smith plays a machine on a learning curve, as well as the four other crew members whose personalities are downloaded into her O/S. Both actors give wonderful, bright and precise performances.

The sound design and score from Alex Burnett is also excellent, which helps provide an other-worldly, technological future. But this is a pub theatre production and the sets and costumes are basic. Sci-fi often succeeds on spectacle and stripped of this, Stasis reveals itself as a strong, narrative-led drama. It has features recognisable from films such as Dark Star, 2001, Star Trek, Alien, and even Red Dwarf, with a lonely human locked into a relationship with an Artificial Intelligence, in a future run by a dark profit-driven ‘corporation’. Yet rather than the cold spectacle and the philosophical musings of much sci-fi it is Ren’s love and sacrifice that makes this such a rewarding night.

Encompass Productions at the The White Bear Theatre, written by Emily Holoake and directed by Liam Fleming.

Rating: Four Stars.

Tomorrow at the White Bear Theatre, Game at the Almeida: Dys and That.

Looking forward to a tiptop Lidl buffet.

Looking forward to a tiptop Lidl buffet.

Dystopian fantasy is the dominant genre or our age. We go for zombie apocalypses like the Cold War era lapped up spy dramas. It is there in the Hunger Games, TV dramas like Black Mirror or The Nether from the Royal Court

Are things really so bad?

Mike Bartlett latest play, Game at the Almeida, uses a dystopian setting to write a satire on class hatred but I was left feeling that the style came before the content, and his heart was not really in the political message.

In contrast, Tomorrow, a new play by first-time writer Samuel Evans, produced by Whistlestop at the White Bear, uses the dystopian theme to talk about mental health. It made for a far more gripping and unexpected play.

Game is the story of a young couple who are given a free home on condition they allow paying customers to take pot-shots at them with tranq guns. The man playing the ‘warden’, a kind of game-keeper to these urban assassins, is an ex-soldier who is increasingly traumatised by his work. It is a satire, clearly, though it is difficult to say what it is a satire of. During the siege of Sarajevo, Serbs would drive into Bosnia to take pot-shots at Sarajevo kids and families. Western kids known as The Hilltop Youth will go to the occupied Palestinian territories and play at being settlers during their holidays, beating up villagers or burning down olive groves. The opportunity to be hobby murderers is clearly one that could be made to pay, but whether this is Bartlett’s point, it is hard to say. It may simply be a play about PTSD and soldiers abandoned after war, as images of soldiers replace the young couple when they leave the apartment.

In Tomorrow, the inhabitants of an Elephant and Castle tower block are waiting for the End of the World with the expectation that life will improve. It is no fantasy: the apocalypse is all over the news channel, and people are partying and rioting in the street. Clive cannot leave the block, however, following a nervous breakdown, so he chooses to wait for the apocalypse at home with a small buffet from Lidl.

It is a great idea, well-observed and carefully rooted in the Elephant and Castle, excellently played by a strong cast. The problem that I anticipated – where do you go with the Apocalypse? – is the one that affects all dystopian fantasies: where do you go? what’s it all for? But I was wrong about Tomorrow. It ends upon a note of hope, even as the world is burning. Clive sees that in a world where everyone is on the brink of a kind of madness, the fears and the prejudices that usually surround mental health issues are rapidly evaporating.

I cannot imagine anything worse than a world where judgement really is nigh – but for someone who has always been misunderstood, the prospect that the rest of the world will finally understand comes as a blessed relief.

Rating: Tomorrow, Four Stars.

The Father – Daddy’s Gone Crazy.

Daddy's got problems.

Daddy’s got problems.

You can imagine August Strindberg playing Happy Families and thinking, what if we replace Mr & Mrs Bun the Baker with Adolphe and Laura the bipolar soldier and his abusive narcissistic wife.

This new translation of Strindberg’s 1887 masterpiece appeared at the Belgrade in 2012 and has already played on Radio 3. The intimacy of the Trafalgar Studios space makes it an intense ride. This is the very worst of marriages, where even the powerful sexual attraction between Adolphe and Laura has become a torture to them both. Adolphe is a soldier by profession but a free-thinker and a scientist by calling. He oversees a provincial military command in order to support not just Laura and their daughter but an extended family that includes her mother and his old nurse (a great performance from June Watson). The bitter but hyper-intelligent Laura has decided her only route to happiness lies in breaking her husband. She contrives situations that make him doubt his sanity, but she is pushing at an open door: Adolphe is on the edge before the play begins.

This is an acutely well-observed play. Strindberg’s text leaves it open as to whether Adolphe’s condition is purely psychological, fatally exacerbated by Laura’s schemes, or if there is an underlying physical cause. But the journey of Laura and Adolphe, superbly played by Emily Dobbs and Alex Ferns, is presented with ruthless precision.

Rating: Four Stars

Rules For Living – Rules Maketh a Madman

stephen-mangan-as-adam-95086

Go on – give us a Geordie accent.

In an episode of The Green Wing, Stephen Mangan’s character is forced to play a game: conduct an operation in a regional accent. He turns out to be beyond bad at doing voices and Mangan brings the same spectacular anti-talent to Sam Holcroft’s new play, Rules for Living, at the Dorfman in the National. The thing is, mimicry is his character’s calling card: when Adam wants to mock anything, he does it in a voice. When he gets particularly stressed and the stakes are raised, he does the voice and tosses in an insult. This is his rule for living, and everyone in Adam’s family has their own: his brother (played by Miles Jupp) is a liar who must eat to fuel his fib; mother (Deborah Findlay) must glug pills and compulsively clean when she feels under attack; while Adam’s wife (Claudia Blakley) must drink to assert herself, and continue to assert herself until she gets the last word.

Now they’re all back for Christmas. It’s not going to end well. In fact, it’s heading off to be a spectacular, trifle-throwing disaster.

The family get-together is is one of the most recognised and sturdy styles of drama. Martin Crimp’s play, In the Republic of Happiness, directed by Dominic Cooke at the Royal Court also began with a traditional holiday meal before spiralling off into wildly unexpected, earth-shattering directions. Holcroft also recognises the form needs something spectacular to give it lift off, and so we have the rules – flashed up on scoreboards above the basketball-like arena where the play is staged.

Adam’s voices might be bad, but that only underlines the venom. He and his family rely on these defensive-attacking strategies to avoid pain or deflect criticism. I bumped into a friend in the theatre, who said she defied anyone not to identify with at least one of the characters. There is a lot of fun to be had, knowing the key to the characters, and anticipating the problems they might face (will Jupp get to the food in time to lie? will Blakley get to the wine?). This is a very funny play. Yet to see the tics as strategies implies a privileged perspective from which everything can be decoded, everything seen and resolved. If we believe there isn’t, then the play may feel smaller, because the rules are there only to amp up the fun and mayhem.

Fireworks (Al’ab Nariya) – A Tower Block in Gaza

Saleh Bakri and Sirine Saba sparking fireworks together.

Saleh Bakri and Sirine Saba sparking fireworks together.

Fireworks, a new play by Ramallah’s Dalia Taha, is a war story – set in Gaza during the 2014 Israeli attack that saw schools, hospitals and as the play mordantly recalls, even cemeteries bombarded for six weeks.

Almost everyone is living in shelters in UN schools. Just two families remain in a rudimentary Gaza City tower block. The children, Khalil and Lubna, play indoors or dare each other to venture out. Khalil’s parents worry that the unpredictably violent boy has been damaged by constant war. The shadow of a moustache has grown on his lip, but he is interested only in Ninja Turtles, and playing tunnels and checkpoints.

Meanwhile, Lubna’s parents are so deep in mourning for a son, shot at random by an Israeli sniper, they cannot see their girl is growing up. When Lubna has her first period and applies TCP to the bloody patch her mother can only demand, don’t you talk about this with your friends? Don’t they tell you this at school? Of course, Lubna is no longer going to school, nor has any friends but the unstable Khalil.

I caught Fireworks (Al’ab Nariya) at the Royal Court in its last week. I would have gone earlier, but the title is a little too resonant: I have spent a lot of time in Palestine over the past twenty years and was caught in the invasion of Bethlehem in 2002 (Leila Sansour, my wife, made a film about it with comedian Jeremy Hardy). We spent six weeks under curfew, as the Israelis shelled the local refugee camp, and shot at anyone who appeared in the street – which I did foolishly did several times.

When I think about fireworks, I remember that for four years after the invasion, I couldn’t stand bonfire night. I would sit inside with the family pets when the explosions started.

Taha, a talented poet as well as playwright, is perhaps remembering the 2002 invasion as she writes about Gaza. The seeds of Gaza were sown in 2002, when the Palestinian Authority was all but destroyed. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon conceived a plan to finally draw Israel’s international borders without consulting the Palestinians (or, indeed, the Israelis) by getting out of Gaza and building a wall around the land he planned to annexe inside the West Bank.

However, Sharon fell into a coma almost immediately he put the plan into action. With no guiding hand, a plan that was never anything but the fantasy of a dangerous autocrat no longer even had its guiding demon.

Sharon seemed to have intended Gaza to remain under permanent siege: he redeployed his troops to the outskirts of the strip, never removed them. Today, Israelis tell the story of this time as though Sharon had presented a gift to the Gazans – and complain it was thrown back into their faces.

With Gaza under permanent siege and no effective Palestinian government, police or welfare services, the strip was swiftly taken over by armed Hamas militias. Sharon’s refusal to give time or space to negotiate Gaza’s future – he left precipitously to confuse his friends and enemies alike – meant there was no possible way to influence, interact or negotiate with Gaza ever again. Now, to satisfy the Israeli public’s demand that something must be done about the strip, all subsequent Israeli governments have mounted aerial bombing campaigns … and for no reason except to buy a percentage point in Israeli opinion polls.

It is an endless war crime, and even in a world filled with evil, one of the most impossible and infinitely dark situations imaginable.

The hopeless certainty that the one million inhabitants of the densely packed Gaza City will be bombed again, and again, ever more savagely, until the end of time, makes Fireworks a play with little possibility of hope or happiness: never the most attractive offer to a ticket-buying audience. Yet this is play filled with love and passion and warmth, and the dryly whimsical Palestinian humour. The excellent cast includes Saleh Bakri, one of the most well-loved and, frankly, most widely-fancied Palestinian actors. This is Bakri’s UK stage debut and though his English is less than fluent, each of his scenes grows in power. At the end, he is unbearably moving in a scene with Khalil’s father (Nabil Elouahabi), contemplating the city from the roof of their tower block.

It is a thrilling and intense evening. I should have gone earlier, so I could go again.

Rating: Four Stars