World Stages London has proven to be the ginger stepchild: Wild Swans was well-liked, but while I loved Three Kingdoms¹ the feeling was far from universal, and let's not even get started on The Suit. Meanwhile Babel had the dubious annual distinction of being that show that proclaims itself "the theatre event of the year," only for its existence to go almost completely unnoticed. So what's the Bush Theatre's contribution to this season? From Palestinian company ShiberHur, Amir Nizar Zuabi's The Beloved takes its inspiration from the story of Abraham and Isaac. Acknowledging the disturbing act of betrayal at the heart of the story, The Beloved resets it to the middle of a modern-day conflict very familiar to the company, near mountains on an ever-changing border, the day after the fateful event.
Makram J Khoury's Abraham (the only character actually named) returns to his shepherd's hut (Jon Bausor's design very effectively bringing the setting alive in the very different environment of an old library building) with his clearly traumatised Young Son (Jonatan Bukshpan.) The boy's Mother (Rivka Neumann) gradually pieces together what's happened, and the play follows the devastating effect on their family: Not just in the short term, but later in how it affects the Son, now an adult (Rami Heuberger,) and his relationship with his wife (Sivan Sasson.) It's an interesting premise, and much of its execution is interesting as well. The story is haunted by the unseen presence of Abraham's first son, who died years ago in the unending wars, and is given a sort of chorus in the form of two sheep (Taher Najib and Samaa Wakeem.)
The performances are good, with Neumann especially affecting as the Mother, first frightened, later fiercely, suspiciously protective like the proverbial lioness with her cub. At times I found the storytelling a bit muddled though, the passage of time isn't particularly clear and on one occasion a whole scene was baffling until the next one came along to explain who the characters were. The playwright also directs, which may explain this to some degree - I sometimes find that writers directing their own work can be a bit too close to the story and not see where elements may need clarifying to an audience coming in to it cold. And while Zuabi comes up with an interesting psychological resolution to the story, I did feel a bit disappointed that this ultimately let the scriptural version of the story off the hook. Overall a lot that's of interest, but not quite delivering all it might have; and, for me, falling a bit short of justifying the Bush's steep new £24 ticket price.
The Beloved by Amir Nizar Zuabi is booking until the 9th of June at the Bush Theatre.
Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes straight through.
¹Three Kingdoms was also the only one of the shows I've seen to even come close to the Festival's supposed remit of celebrating "the exhilarating cosmopolitan diversity of London's people and culture." Almost all the plays have been international shows that happen to be staged in London, which isn't even remotely the same thing.