The Keepers of Infinite Space (Park Theatre)
Omar El-Khairy's play opened at the Park Theatre last night (23 January 2014)
"You think you can be in this world and not part of it?" This line, bellowed by prisoner Muhib (Patrick Toomey) strikes his fellow inmate hard and is an instance where The Keepers of Infinite Space almost demands a direct response.
The Park Theatre's newest offering continues to ask questions of the audience, pushing and prodding them while telling the story of Saeed, a bookshop owner who is illegally imprisoned in Israel because of his family's militant actions. Khalil (Hilton McRae), Saeed's father, opens the play by addressing the audience as potential international investors in his new Palestinian city Rawabi. Meanwhile, sharing the stage is his imprisoned son, being tortured by interrogators. It's an astonishing opening - juxtaposing capitalism as a weapon with the physical toll exacted on a normal citizen – and one that takes an iron grip on you, making you feel instantly culpable.
The play continues to follow the internment of Saeed and his wife's (played by Sirine Saba) struggle on the outside. While it is somewhat jarring to hear Scottish and English accents playing Middle-Eastern characters this is preferable to impersonation and the acting is solid throughout.
Torture scenes are visceral and violent, with Laura Prior's prison officer in particular creating a toxic environment of oppression. Her boss Abner (John Wark) is a towering presence, completely in control with his manic, psychotic rage. By forcing you to watch these scenes, the initial sense of frightening culpability is maintained and makes for an awkward watching experience. While there is some effort to give these guards some human background they become increasingly villainous and this makes the piece somewhat lopsided. That said, Keepers strongly highlights a variety of people defined by their bloody heritage. Zoe Lafferty's direction defines this past as the prison within which both the Arab inmates and Israeli guards are bound.
The play becomes increasingly diffuse in the second act however and never scales the heights of the opening. Flashbacks break the flow and previous stories - like that of Ziv (Cornelius Macarthy), a fascinating Ethiopian immigrant employed as a guard in Israel – are disappointingly forgotten. Of course, the focus is Saeed but by introducing these plotlines in the first place Keepers looks beyond its remit without offering closure. This becomes the main problem of the piece as it leaves you unsure as to whether it's a political argument, a story of a father-and-son relationship, a prison revenge plot or a portrait of a marriage under incredible strain.
Author Omar El-Khairy notes that "there's no simple message at the heart of this piece – its intention is not to educate, but rather to move and inspire" and Keepers certainly achieves this last note. With more focus on Saeed's personal struggle, rather than the machinations surrounding it, Keepers would have been less convoluted. Nevertheless it is an engulfing, immediate and powerful depiction of a man whose entire existence is crumbling before him.