Thursday, 12 May 2022

Theatre review: Two Palestinians Go Dogging

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: Press Night for this is next week. This may mean the running time issue I mention later in this review may have been improved a bit by then.

The Royal Court isn't afraid to tackle the political issues that most steer clear of, so it's perhaps not entirely surprising that their latest premiere tackles the conflict between Israel and Palestine - from the Palestinian perspective that's generally shied away from, and largely through the medium of black comedy. Sami Ibrahim's Two Palestinians Go Dogging has a title that's meant to sound like the setup to a joke, but we're also assured many times that public sex is literally something its indefatigable leading lady has been known to indulge in; it's also the setting for a couple of unlikely Israeli-Palestinian encounters on a more intimate level. The story begins in 2043, although apart from the fact that the Prime Minister of Israel is the reanimated corpse of Benjamin Netanyahu there's nothing much to differentiate it from 2022.

It effectively says the timeframe is arbitrary, and in a conflict nearly a century old but with its roots much further back, the events could have happened at any time in the past, and will be dragging on well into the future with little hope of change.

Reem (Hala Omran) tells the story of the Fifth Intifada, an uprising of Palestinians armed with stones against a fully-equipped Israeli army, that begins when her son Jawad (Luca Kamleh Chapman) discovers wounded Israeli soldier Sara (Mai Weisz) in the basement of an abandoned building. In what is "not an accident but not not an accident" he kills her; Netanyahu uses Sara as an excuse for a fresh wave of revenge attacks, while the imprisoned Jawad becomes the poster-boy for Palestinian resistance. But Reem's insistence that this Fifth Intifada will be the one to finally change things looks increasingly desperate.

As the mother of the person who kicks it all off, Reem is openly biased, and Ibrahim's play is built largely around investigating this idea of the unreliable narrator: She's accompanied by her husband (and dogging partner-in-crime) Sayeed (Miltos Yerolemou,) permanently holding a dictionary so he can point out when her choice of words is misleading the audience. Ibrahim as writer insists on hearing the point of view of an ordinary Israeli in the form of Sara's father Adam (Philipp Mogilnitskiy,) but Reem-as-character reserves her right to her own prejudices and refuses to stay and listen. And as Sayeed manages to wrest some of the narrative away from his wife, we find out the crucial elements she's been withholding from the audience.

The character of Reem, given a heartfelt performance by Omran, is by far the most ambitious element of Ibrahim's play, a symbol of Palestinian resilience who kind-of knows she's a symbol, but feels and believes herself to be real. The titled chapter headings aren't the only overt Brechtian element of the play as there's more than a little Mother Courage to Reem, whose relentless losses extend beyond her immediate family to nieces and nephews - Salwa (Sofia Danu) quickly becomes a martyr, while Tariq (Joe Haddad) becomes a grotesque metaphor for Western "do-gooders" tutting at the situation without actually doing anything.

The writing is also ambitious in its disjointed storytelling and wild mood swings, from tragedy to almost stand-up comedy, and director Omar Elerian marshals it all into something that feels tonally coherent. As it goes over the 3-hour mark I do feel it has to justify that indulgence, and for the most part it does - a couple of scenes seem overextended, and there's a protracted epilogue that feels like Ibrahim is trying to get in a few themes he didn't fit into the main body of the text.

This ending is also marred by the audience checking their watches and leaving before the end, because for my second theatre visit in a row the actual running time is nearly half an hour longer than advertised by FOH, and a 7:45 start means 11pm is in sight by the time it ends. Ironically, much of this epilogue involves Reem refusing to give up her platform and let the audience go, but however on-theme it might be it's pretty inexcusable on the Royal Court's part: Misrepresenting the running time's the most egregious thing, but this was a show scheduled for 2020 and cancelled by Covid, so they've been sitting on the script for two years, they must have known it was likely to be a hefty one. They're not married to the 7:45 start time, 7:15 would have still given them a staggered entry with the Downstairs theatre, and ultimately they're doing the writer a disservice when, regardless of what anyone thought of 95% of the show, the lasting memory will be of having to travel home in the wee small hours, possibly feeling unsafe. Even writing this review took a particular effort to tune back into how I felt about the actual show, rather than the last impression of having to dash off after the first bow, and still missing my train home.

But ultimately the actual show is a strong one, and at a theatre that must still be nervous after its recent whoops!antisemitism incident, Ibrahim directs his anger and sadness squarely at international politics and history, with religion kept out of it. The closest the play gets is the admission that the Arabic language tends not to use the terms Israeli and Palestinian, preferring Jew and Arab, with all the unintended implications. Marred by a few issues, not all of them in the playwright's control, Two Palestinians Go Dogging is regardless an interesting work that succeeds in giving a different perspective on a people generally wilfully overlooked by the media.

Two Palestinians Go Dogging by Sami Ibrahim is booking until the 1st of June at the Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Upstairs.

Running time: 3 hours 5 minutes including interval,

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