Tricycle Theatre, London NW6
Opened 19 March, 2003

Two leitmotiv lines encapsulate the world examined in Julia Pascal's Crossing Jerusalem, set in that city in March 2002 and presented at the Tricycle Theatre as part of the Jewish Arts Festival. Russian-born stepfather Serguei keeps saying, "Sorry about that"; it's little more than a verbal tic, but it indicates that, as an immigrant, he finds it easy to feel he is being too flippant for the native Israeli culture in which he now lives. More telling still is the line his daughter-in-law Yael screams three times in the course of the two-hour play: "Don't fuck inside my head!" When matters get too trenchant, she feels threatened, encroached upon. Insight can be perceived as a form of aggression, and can be countered with the more straightforward sort.

Pascal has long interrogated Jewish attitudes and experiences without ever denigrating them. Here, too, she is even-handed as between the Israeli Kaufman family and the Palestinian sons of their former menial, one of whom they find by chance working in the restaurant where they go to celebrate Yael's thirtieth birthday; also as between those two brothers, the dutiful Yusuf and younger Sharif who has joined the intifada; and as between Yael's desire for a son and her husband Gideon's burden of memories, from 1980s Lebanon to his more recent tour of duty as a military reservist on the West Bank. All are subjected to the unblinking gaze of Pascal's writing and Jack Gold's similarly frank production.

Again and again, whichever parties are involved and whether the subject matter is family tension or the whole regional tangle, a conscious desire to understand runs up hard against a more pathological refusal to accommodate too much, as if one's head were itself territory that must not be conceded. Add to that the dimension that, for both Jews and Arabs, concepts of family and nation are intimately intertwined, and it makes for a complex, rocky emotional landscape.

But that's not to say that the play just re-enacts the same argument repeatedly: the issues and attitudes take many different shapes, from the bedroom to the restaurant to the estate agent's office run by mother Varda, to the hospital waiting room which is the almost inevitable final location for the 24 hours' worth of dramatic action. A discreet point about diversity and resistance to binary stereotyping is made, for instance, by identifying the restaurant owner as a Christian Arab.

Suzanne Bertish is impressive as Varda, a grimmer, flintier version of the figure familiar to us as the comic Jewish mother; whenever Varda remarks that some action or other is killing her, we recognise both the rhetoric and the bleak conviction here underlying it. Constantine Gregory walks a fine line as Serguei: part-conciliator, part-licensed fool, part-outsider. Nabil Elouahabi's Yusuf is the strongest of the younger performances, finding a range of notes on which to play his various permutations of strength and uncertainty, resolution and compassion. And Pascal, admirably, refuses to pretend not only that she may have any answers, but that even the process of questioning is in any way especially worthy. It is simply a duty.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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