Sunday, 21 June 2015

Review: The Siege. Nottingham Playhouse

No stranger to political drama himself, playwright Howard Brenton has described the Palestine based Freedom Theatre of Jenin's production of The Siege as 'Real political theatre, performed out of the terrible and inspiring experience of a struggle for freedom and justice and living proof that telling stories and entertaining audiences are powerful acts of resistance to oppression.'

The ninety minute drama by this famous Palestinian theatre company is an emotionally gripping non stop tale of Palestinian freedom fighters who, in 2002, sought sanctuary in the Church of The Nativity in Bethlehem. The work is actually enhanced by the very nature that all six male actors are speaking Arabic (with English language surtitles above the action) throughout the play. Only the character of the 'tour guide' speaks English.

The stories of the fighters and the nuns, priests, and civilians with them in the church, plus the opposing Israeli army and their tactics, are brought to life through a variety of ways including archive film footage, monologues and dangerously realistic shooting and bombing effects. Strange high pitched noises are used by the Israeli forces to demoralise those holed up in the church and there is even a moment of dark humour as one of the fighters reacts to the enemy's psychological method of forcibly using his mother's voice to beg him and his comrades to surrender themselves.

Writer Nabil Al-Raee's story abounds with talk of miracles, sacrifice and visions of Jesus in the church. Helicopters circle the church and snipers hide on every rooftop. The thirty nine day siege drags on and we hear that food is getting short in supply. The centre of Bethlehem is paralysed keeping tens of thousands under curfew. All the while we hear of the controversially biased nature of the media coverage. It is a desperate situation as the trapped are starving and the wounded are slowly bleeding to death. Actors Ahmed Rokh, Ahmed Tobasi, Faisal Abu Alheja, Hassan Taha, Milad Qunebe and Rabee Hanani bring the stories terrifically and terrifyingly to life.

From the very outset the audience enter the auditorium to the distant sound of Christian chanting and the impressive visuals of the dark interior of the set designed by Anna Gisle. Given that drama historically had it's origins through a blend of religion, ceremony and entertainment and later on developed strong connections with the Christian church this reviewer has the uncanny feeling that the Nottingham Playhouse audience are almost cast as the captive witnesses in the stage reconstruction of Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity. As the 'tour guide' says “I'll take you on a tour to get to know this place.” In The Siege you also get a 'tour de force' company of brilliant theatre makers.

Review originally featured as lead review in EG section of Nottingham Post 12th June 2015

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