Baudelaire's flowers were those of evil, overblown with the gutter stench of decay. Those of Monsieur Ibrahim, in the novella and play of the same name by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, are wholesome, dried and pressed lovingly within the covers of his Qur'an. Yet it is not all sweet savours and sparkling sunlight for any of these characters.
We are in the Banlieue of Paris, some 40 years before these neglected suburbs flamed into international consciousness. The local convenience store ("open at night and on Sunday") is run by the one Muslim shopkeeper in a predominantly Jewish street. A friendship develops between Moses, a teenager with all the hang-ups associated with that phase of developments, and the proprietor.
It starts inauspiciously, with theft. It ends with a tragedy, but also with hope and a vision of a more positive future. Director Patricia Benecke, who translated and adapted the play with Patrick Driver, paces her two actors within Soutra Gilmour's flexible setting to engage our sympathies and make time spent in the theatre almost flow away.
Two actors - but a wealth of characters. There's Moses' father, a failed lawyer, guilt-ridden for having survived the Holocaust, and his estranged wife. Prostitutes and a policeman, teachers and salesmen, even Brigitte Bardot herself come before us as Monsieur Ibrahim shows Moses the Paris of the tourists (which he'd never bothered to explore), the Normandy countryside and finally Ibrahim's own lost lands.
For he is a Sufi from the Farsi-speaking part of the Near East, not a Sunni or Shi'ite Arab, with a culture which includes whirling dervishes and a world-view far removed from the prejudices with which Moses is at first encumbered.
So you could say that on one level the play is an allegory, a parable about understanding and acceptance. But that would be to belittle the sheer warmth and humanity radiated by this theatrical experience and the skill with which the actors unveil their portfolio of three-dimensional people.
James Daley is brash young Moses, sharp-tongued and sharp-witted, so much so that you know instinctively that the person most likely to be cut by all these sharp edges is himself. And Sam Dastor, a honey-voiced gentle giant, switches easily between the asperity of Moses's father and the silken wisdom of Monsieur Ibrahim. Not to mention the prostitutes.
It's a play worth seeing. Like all the best theatre it leaves its audience thinking about what it has experienced. And wanting more.
- Anne Morley-Priestman (reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester)