Whenever pressed to argue for the power of theatre, we speak of its immediacy: the fact that players are physically present in the same space and time as we who are watching gives the form a directness of impact. Depending upon the piece presented, though, our understanding may depend as much upon language as the close-up opportunity to appreciate physical and visual nuance.
These musings are prompted by the current LIFT show at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, Ramzy Abul Majd, presented by Al-Kasaba Theatre of East Jerusalem. Adaptor George Ibrahim and director Mohammad Bakri have transposed Athol Fugard's Sizwe Bansi Is Dead so that, where the original play dealt with the all-importance of work and movement permits for black workers in apartheid South Africa, their version now addresses the same problems facing Palestinians in territories occupied by Israel. Ramzy Abul Majd, from Gaza, has an orange ID card which does not permit him to work or even to remain in the city of Jaffa; when, by chance, he and a friend find a dead body in an alley, the possibility presents itself of Ramzy assuming the dead man's identity in order to use his blue card.
On a spare stage adorned mostly by projected photographs (the story is told in flashback by the "new" Ramzy on a visit to a photographic studio), actors Ahmad Abu Sal'oum and Husam Abu Eshee engage in some beautifully detailed comic business as well as several debates about the difficulties of work and movement under such a régime, the nature of identity and the value of human life. Jameel As-Sayeh, sitting off to one side, supplies periodic musical commentary, accompanying himself on the lute-like oud.
For all the wonderful naturalism of the actors' performances – Abu Sal'oum's underplayed diffidence as Ramzy in the studio, for instance, is a sheer delight – this is a piece driven by words. The debates and discussions are crucial to full appreciation of both the issues and the play. However detailed the printed synopsis provided, those of us who do not speak Arabic must accept that we are missing much of the dramatic meat; even the presence of surtitles instead of a synopsis would immensely increase the sensation of immediacy. As things stand, we must simply assume that the intelligence and subtlety of the text match those of the performers. Nevertheless, what we can see and hear testifies to a fine production, and one which ought to prime an interest in the future projects of Al-Kasaba.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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