THE ARAB-ISRAELI COOKBOOK
Gate Theatre, London W11
Opened 10 June, 2004
***

It's increasingly common for the texts of new plays to be on sale at performances, but not every show gets its own tie-in recipe book. However, the literal Arab-Israeli Cookbook is now available, containing recipes gathered during research for Robin Soans' verbatim play, during which several dishes are prepared in two kitchens on the tiny Gate stage.

Soans travelled through Israel and the West Bank last autumn, interviewing Israelis, Palestinians and Arabs Jews, Muslims and Christians and transcribing their observations in which food is inextricably bound up with social, political and spiritual life. Meeting in cafés and restaurants is integral to both main cultures in the region, and both have suffered: in Israel, the threat of bombing drives custom away; in the Occupied Territories, IDF checkpoints discourage or prevent customers from getting to many establishments.

Rituals of preparation and serving, too, range from the religiously prescribed (the code of kashrut even extends to who may serve wine) to the personally significant, as with the Arab cook who shapes not just his day but his entire consciousness around the routine of preparing hummus. Culture, politics, religion and cuisine all nestle cheek by jowl: Arafat used to send down to one Ramallah restaurateur for food, but no longer does so as he's not well; the townspeople of Bethlehem were reduced to living on rice as a result of the curfew imposed during the siege of the Church of the Nativity.

Soans and directors Rima Brihi and Tim Roseman elicit a clutch of fine performances from an eight-strong cast, with Sheila Hancock and Keith Bartlett the most impressive. Now and again, though, Amanda Boxer's American-Israeli widow grows strident, and Ben Turner's delivery would benefit appreciably from a greater awareness of how intimate a space the Gate is. These performances feel a little too much at times.

So, to be honest, does the play as a whole. The Rosh Hashanah dinner which unites the whole cast in "lechayim"s makes an ideal end point; unfortunately, it only cues the interval, after which the second act seems to feel obliged to point up the grimness and address the depredations of the intifada more directly. It almost loses the delicate balance of the first act, with its unexpected sidelights, oblique perspectives and overall novel illumination of life in today's Holy Land.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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