Plays that talk magically these days of political strife and upheaval are rare, and ones that bear such tidings from the Middle East even rarer, so this remarkable collaboration between the newly founded theatre company ShiberHur from Haifa and the Young Vic is doubly welcome.
There’s a mystery, and a riddle, at the heart of it. Amir Nizar Zuabi’s play counterpoints the chaos in the wake of the British Mandate in Palestine in 1948 with the siege of Ramallah in 2000 in the story of separated lovers, and the brother of one of them.
That brother is Yusuf, “not all there” as we said years ago, and he’s first seen being urged to take a bath by his brother’s young lover, now old. The stage is covered in a huge tarpaulin canopy that lifts and heaves with the action, sur-titles projected on the bath and two small hovering screens.
The subsequent irony of actors straining to speak in English to an audience whose forebears landed them in this mess is rather delicious. There’s a lot about the betrayal of the Balfour Declaration, the difficulties of the Partition. But the play still manages to be pro-Palestinian without being anti-Israeli (the state of Israel was an important and necessary idea).
The Yorkshire soldier (Paul Fox), trying to tune his radio to the ecstasy of Bellini’s “Casta diva” while Yusuf hold the wires is only one of many splendid images; he’ll leave the place with no memories, blank concern, blue skies happily exchanged for Sheffield steel grey.
The playwright’s own production probably has too much water slopping about in Jon Bausor’s design, but the succession of scenes of hardship and displacement played almost in tableau fashion on the slightly sunken area is given pointed poeticism in Colin Grenfell’s great lighting.
Now the actors are dancing roosters, or wailing women in serious procession, or pecking pigeons: there’s an easy anthropomorphism that creates pungent theatre.
We are lucky indeed to sample the acting talents of Ali Suliman as Ali, Samaa Wakeem and Salwa Nakkara as the two Nadas, Amer Hlehel as a wonderfully sympathetic, bumbling younger Yusuf and Yussef Abu Warda, an actor of effortless expressive skill, and real weight, as the older – and as a refugee bearing his own tree on his back; one day, he’ll go home and re-plant it, and reap the fruit.