It has been 68 years since the state of Israel was established and, with crushing inevitability, became the site of a seemingly intractable conflict. Drawing on stories recounted by her friends and relatives, Palestinian-Irish writer Hannah Khalil sets out to capture a very human perspective on ordinary lives lived under extraordinary pressures.
As the title suggest, the play is made up of a number of short vignettes, which intertwine and inform one another as they jump around in a broken chronology. Each is introduced with a date flashed up on various screens, but this serves less to define specific moments than to erode the sense of time entirely. In many ways, little has changed in the intervening decades, and we see events recurring and old wounds being continually re-salted across generations.
Playing several roles apiece, the seven-strong cast prove themselves tremendously versatile, with each character distinct enough to be immediately recognisable when they suddenly reappear. Peter Polycarpou gets all the best parts, though, effortlessly embodying an impressive range from anxious little boy, to querulous cabbie, to an old man agonizingly retelling the story of his town’s occupation. Meanwhile, Maisa Abd Elhadi performs via Skype, playing a character keen to contact a relative in the UK. While it was originally intended that she called in each night from her home in Palestine, she will in fact be appearing from various European locations during the run, due to the success of her latest film Dégradé.
Keeping a tight focus on the large company and the expansive text, Chris White’s direction is bold and wonderfully fluid. Silky smooth scene changes and regularly repurposed props keep the play flowing through its dozens of transitions, while actors fade into the audience when they’re not performing.
The writing is smart and economical, simultaneously resonant with warmth and humanity, and shot through with exquisitely dark comedy. A boy teases his grandfather with the lie that Palestine has been liberated. A shopkeeper sells onions at an increased price because they make an effective antidote to teargas. Khalil’s script covers a lot of ground, masterfully spinning out snippets of story which reflect on each other while exploring new perspectives. In one house, a father insists his daughter applies to study in safe, prestigious Oxford. In another, a mother bewails her son’s decision to work in London, calling it a betrayal of his heritage.
So many scenes start off – and somehow remain – humorous and wry, even as some awful implication becomes clear, a grim sense of context running under the words as dark and cold as an underground river. At one point, a Palestinian musician visits his former family home, and the current, Israeli, resident welcomes him, even giving him a tour. She chats enthusiastically about the original tiles still clinging to the walls, unable to see the burden of loss he carries.
Again and again, the play subtly and powerfully confronts the contradictions inherent in a place which two peoples claim as their homeland. There is a sense that something terrible might happen at any moment, but such things are rarely shown, only alluded to – no rockets explode during the play, no one is killed. Instead, we’re left with the implication of an ongoing awfulness, of the ‘terrible thing’ happening quietly and constantly just out of sight, and being passed off as everyday life.
A remarkable piece of writing made outstanding by a dynamic production, these scenes combine into a deft, kaleidoscopic portrait of ongoing struggle, acceptance, and simple survival. With black humour and a deft touch, Khalil has crafted a deeply compassionate – and disconcertingly funny – response to the brutalising cycle of mutual injury which separates Israelis and Palestinians.
Scenes from 68* Years is on until 30th April 2016. Click here for tickets.