And Here I Am – Arcola Theatre, London

Writer: Hassan Abdulrazzak
Director: Zoe Lafferty
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Theatre is a lifeline and a cultural force; it can make you happy or sad, provoke debate or spread new knowledge, and in some of the darkest places in the world it offers hope. Hassan Abdulrazzak’s one-man play And Here I Am is based on the life story of performer Ahmed Tobasi, demonstrating how a love of performance can dissolve political boundaries and cure a broken heart.

tell-us-block_editedTobasi grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp on the West Bank where life seemed pretty normal, he played football with the boys, joined a drama group and fell in love with a local girl. But, encouraged by his friends, Tobasi joined the Islamic Jihad and was captured while escaping from a local town where he was questioned and sentenced to several years in prison. Tobasi emerged a changed man and found salvation in the theatre which took him to Europe and the chance of freedom.

Abdulrazzak and Tobasi have created a fascinating and engaging 80-minute show that takes its protagonist from scenario to scenario, humorously unfolding his life story between the ages of 15 to 23. For the most part, it is a full throttle comic monologue in which Tobasi plays himself and several other characters, describing the detail of his upbringing including the garbage on the streets and thrill of riding on his friend’s motorcycle with just his physical exuberance and the odd prop to convey the hormonal teenage years.

And while the tendency to find humour in every situation is a hallmark of this show, it does take the audience to some much darker places, as Tobasi describes his experience of combat. Initially, as many young soldiers find, it feels like a childhood game but watching a good friend shot by a sniper brings home the reality of war, and Tobasi describes the sight and sound of death in chilling detail.

Combining these dark and light elements throughout, And Here I Am switches rapidly between scenes in what is a packed story, and it’s not always easy to keep the narrative straight as events hurtle along. Tobasi also occasionally loses clarity, particularly a high volume, due to the velocity of particular sections, which means it’s not always clear to the audience what’s happened and why.

Theatre and performance is a running theme and Tobasi seems meant for a career in the spotlight, even when behaving like Stallone or Schwarzenegger in combat, or joining a local theatre intending to be the “Di Caprio of the Middle East.” Tobasi has a warm and energetic stage presence that pulls the audience into his narrative, encouraging them to root for him throughout, and while a natural tendency to humour does diminish the darker sections somewhat, knowing the story has been drawn from real life just makes it all the more astonishing.

Sarah Beaton’s set is fairly minimal with just a few scattered bags and boxes which Tobasi utilises to physically recreate aspects of his story, while Max Pappenheim’s sound effects are an important part of the action, as busy streets become a prison, border control and combat zone that help the audience to better visualise what’s happening.

As part of the Shubbak Festival of Arab Culture that runs until mid-July, And Here I Am is an eye-opening and celebratory tale of Abdulrazzak and Tobasi’s love of theatre that not only helped Tobasi through his military experience, but as a medium through which to tell important stories about its transformative power – as Tobasi’s old theatre manager explained: “Theatre is a serious weapon, you can use it change how people think”.

Runs until 8 July 2017 then tour continues | Image: Oliver King

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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