Sunday, 3 March 2013

Theatre review: Facts

Jewish Canadian playwright Arthur Milner's father was a right-wing Zionist, so in writing a play about Israel and Palestine he takes the opportunity, in part, to deal with some of his issues around his disagreement with his father's politics. Inspired by a true story, Facts takes place in a police interrogation room in the Occupied Territories where Palestinian detective Khalid (Philip Arditti) has asked an Israeli colleague he's collaborated with in the past to help him with a murder case that's going nowhere. Khalid and Yossi (Michael Feast) start to piece together the events around the shooting of an American archaeologist whose work made him controversial in the region: Publishing evidence that directly contradicts the version of history in Exodus, he's casting doubt not only on the Old Testament as a factual source, but also on the entire basis for the Jewish claim on modern Israel.

Their investigation leads them to a Jewish American settler in the West Bank, Danny (Paul Rattray,) a man whose confidence in his convoluted alibi is surpassed only by his utter unflinching conviction in his beliefs, the kind of zealotry that made him the prime suspect in the first place.

Personally I found Facts pretty absorbing, if not entirely focused. Arditti and Feast build up a fascinating relationship both in their characters' essential similarities and differences, and in the humour that pervades Caitlin McLeod's production: A good example would be the argument before Danny arrives over who will be good cop and who bad cop, that actually proves irrelevant as the pair fall more naturally into these roles once the suspect is in the room. Danny's arrival proves a catalyst particularly for Yossi, who sees in him everything that angers him most about the region's political and religious extremes, and his own place in them.

The first half of the play, as Khalid and Yossi put the pieces of the mystery together, is particularly engrossing, a police procedural with an explosive background. In the second half when Danny joins and antagonises them the personal drama is what takes centre stage, with Khalid now providing the calming influence over two people with very firmly-held and opposing beliefs about what it is to be a Jew.

The main flaw here is that there's just far too much going on for a 90-minute play with a cast of three: It's a murder mystery thriller in a highly-charged setting; it's a play about that setting and the bloody history that shows no signs of ending any time soon; it touches on the conflict between science and religion, and what happens when the former forces a complete reevaluation of the latter; it's about how someone's cultural background can be a major part of who they are even if they don't believe in the religion that underscores it (Yossi is an atheist but his Jewishness is key to how he responds to Danny.) By the time we get to the character study of Yossi and how he externalises years of self-hatred in the course of the investigation, the play has become rather overloaded.

But I still think Facts is fascinating on the whole, with some interesting performances, particularly from Arditti who's called on to quietly project a lot of simmering emotion over the fireworks of the other two. There's another ambitious set (from Georgia Lowe this time) on the small stage - I look forward to returning next week to see how such a specific location gets adjusted for what sounds like a very different alternate show. Facts is undoubtedly flawed, and the complex issues that it centres on threaten to trip it up, but it kept me engrossed in its claustrophobic world for the whole of its running time.

Facts by Arthur Milner is booking until the 23rd of March at the Finborough Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes straight through.

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