Writer: Sami Ibrahim
Director: Omar Elerian
After presenting a play in 2021 that was found to be anti-Semitic, one would expect The Royal Court to stay away from the incendiary subject of Palestine. However, by setting his play in 2043 Sami Ibrahim’s story feels less urgent than it would if it looked at what was happening in Palestine today. It’s still a brave choice by the Royal Court, but the theatre has ignored Ibrahim’s request, as stated in the stage directions, that Palestinian handkerchiefs are on sale as the audience enters the upstairs space.
It may be 2043, five years before the 100th anniversary of the creation of state of Israel, but the situation in Palestine seems to have changed very little. Palestine has lost more territory to Israeli settlers, rockets are launched by both sides and, as ever, the casualties in Palestine are higher. We join the story when tension between the two countries is especially high after an Israeli soldier has been killed and when her killer has become an internet hero.
This story is rather interesting and the action scenes are extremely well-presented, but the rest of the play is framed in a Brechtian style. The fourth wall is broken even before the play begins with the cast dragging people they know out of the audience to join them dancing to Palestinian hip-hop. Scene titles and their numbers are announced to the audience by the actors, and characters are introduced by Reem, who also acts as the play’s narrator. It’s Brecht 101.
Reem will tell jokes, too, like the one alluded to in the play’s title. However, despite Hala Omran’s indefatigable work during the play’s running time of two hours and fifty minutes, many of the jokes simply do not land. It’s not that it’s too early to joke about things like this – gallows humour is, of course, an effective way to deal with tragedy – but that the jokes are simply not funny. It’s almost as if Ibrahim is trying too hard to inject some light-heartedness into a subject that all too easily ends in a bitter dispute.
Omran is powerful figure on stage, more so when we discover that her character is not just the narrator, but also a major player in the story. She’s joined by her husband Sayeed who quotes dictionary definitions like an undergraduate writing an essay. It’s a shame that Miltos Yerolemou has little else to do in his role as harassed husband. He also has to drop his trousers twice in the dogging scenes, themselves an unsatisfactory metaphor.
There’s good work from Luca Kamleh Chapman as Reem’s son Jawad, and from Philipp Mogilnitskly as Adam, the solemn father of the murdered soldier, although his late monologue only adds more minutes to a play that is already overlong. In early previews, the show ran for over three hours, but there are still many places where the play could be cut even further.
In a final distancing scene, a letter by the playwright is read out to the audience where Ibrahim (or a fictional version of Ibrahim) confesses that he has never been to Palestine, but likes it when the Royal Court asks him to write a play about Palestine. It’s an honest acknowledgment, but it does make one wonder whether the Royal Court has asked the right person.
Runs until 1 June 2022