Scenes from 68* Years (Arcola Theatre)
This new play by Palestinian-Irish playwright Hannah Khalil travels through time to paint a picture of occupation in Palestine
Jumping back and forth in time between 1948 (the foundation of the state of Israel), to the present day and various points in between, Scenes from 68* Years tells a collection of stories of daily life under occupation in Palestine.
What feels initially like a barrage of different characters, times and places eventually settles down into a few distinct narrative threads, but the five-person cast (there are seven actors billed, but two of them have only small single roles) are each portraying so many characters that these temporal and geographical leaps are always confusing. Jumping to and fro also makes it hard to follow individual character journeys, so we're never able to develop relationships with the women and men that playwright Hannah Khalil presents us with.
The show is at its strongest in the longer scenes, when the actors are given the chance to settle into their characters. Peter Polycarpou does a nice turn as a Palestinian shopkeeper keeping a cheery outlook as he waits, in vain, for supplies to arrive over the border, while Janine Harouni captures the excruciating lack of self-awareness of a Jewish émigré talking about her ‘return' to Jerusalem to a young Arab man whose mother was evicted by the Israeli state.
The issue is that director Chris White has done nothing to differentiate between time periods or geographical locations. This might be deliberate – nothing ever changes; perhaps Israelis and Palestinians aren't so different after all – but if so, it's a point made at the expense of both narrative clarity and dramatic tension.
It's not the only directorial failing – there's no consistent approach to sound design, with recorded music, singing and rudimentary drumming by the cast all thrown in at various points for no discernable reason. Set design too is muddled: some props are mimed, others are there on stage; why, we have no idea. It feels like watching a play at an early stage of rehearsals.
The casting, meanwhile, is horribly unbalanced, the company mostly full of attractive 20-somethings when what's required is an even spread of ages from children to old people. Several of the cast are strong in some roles, but distractingly weak in others, particularly when it comes to the younger characters.
By focusing on the everyday, Scenes from 68* Years seeks to reveal truths about life under occupation. This approach can offer a compelling route into the subject, but get it wrong – as this play does on so many levels – and all you're left with is the mundane.
Scenes from 68* Years runs at the Arcola Theatre until 30 April.
Running time: 95 minutes