Ali and Dahlia – The Pleasance, London

Writer: Tariq Jordan

Director: Kerry Kyriacos Michael

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Romeo and Juliet stories are one of dramas must reliable tropes, two lovers cruelly divided by circumstance, putting them culturally and socially at odds in spite of their physical attraction. Tariq Jordan’s first play, Ali and Dahlia which premieres at the Pleasance Theatre, adds a modern political twist when an Israeli girl falls for a Palestinian boy as 60-years of complex history comes between them.

Ali is being held in a secure facility as Omar Nasser, awaiting trial for throwing rocks during a protest about the new American Embassy opening in Jerusalem in 2018. But during the riots a soldier went missing and Ali’s new lawyer is determined to discover what happened so she can clear her client of any suspicion… except Ali’s new lawyer is his Israeli ex-girlfriend Dahlia, and their past comes back to haunt them.

Jordan’s play has two competing narratives; first, the discovery of Ali’s role in the protest and subsequent missing persons enquiry that punctuates the story, and a more dominant strand which focuses on the doomed love affair between the youthful protagonists. At various points the two intersect and we see the extent to which their deeply ingrained religious and political differences drive a wedge between them. Jordan unfolds this particular aspect of the drama very well in several subtly written scenes in which long-held views about land ownership and militarism slowly poison the air between them.

Yet, the foregrounded relationship drama lacks any sense of the true danger inherent in their precarious situation and is fatally undermined by a lack of credible chemistry between the leads. Their involvement barely registers the changing of the years, so the teenage lovers and their later selves are largely played with exactly the same earnest characterisation while Jordan occasionally resorts to clunky Soap Opera technique, particular when Dahlia (Deli Segal) delivers a misty-eyed monologue about the terrible thing she did in the past in an attempt at character psychology.

Ali and Dahlia feels more like an intellectual exercise than an emotional one, in which conversations meander through the historical facts while the leads discuss their feelings for each other. What they never do is show us, there is no spark of passion between them, director Kerry Kyriacos Michael barely allows them to get close, there’s no demonstrable affection between them in their stolen moments so it becomes impossible to believe later that it could have shaped them as completely as Jordan wants us to believe.

The same is true of the political context, and while Will Monks’ fascinating projection on every wall adds a valuable immersive quality and brings the reality of the West Bank and Gaza to North London, the burning fury and emotionalism of the opposing sides never really comes across in the relatively polite conversations we witness. Even the scenes in which Dahlia’s brother Asher (Kai Spellman) calls his home from his base feel like costume-change fillers, lacking the fanaticism and dedication to a form of crusade that soldiers on all sides must experience.

Jordan’s play has plenty of building blocks, and one of its most successful outcomes is to show how both societies are dominated by the needs of the military as Dahlia undergoes a period of enforced service and Ali (Waj Ali) is drawn to organised protest. Ultimately though, the Romeo and Juliet driver is the least gripping aspect of a narrative that has more convincing things to say about Ali’s arrest, the society around him and the long ancestry of military protest.

Runs until: 14 April 2019 | Image: Steve Gregson

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