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.”
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.
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.