This latest offering from World Stages London, a co-production between the Bush Theatre, the Young Vic, Palestinian theatre company ShiberHur and KVS Brussels, takes inspiration from the suitably international reference point of scripture. Amir Nizar Zuabi’s reimagining of the well-known story of Abraham and Isaac, cast in the Bible as the ultimate test of a man’s faith, takes us instead into the territory of deep psychological scars and tainted parental relationships. Following the scene on the mountain, a sacrificial near-miss inspired by a markedly ambiguous divine intervention, Zuabi charts the destructive and far-reaching consequences of this incident through the watching eyes of the slaughtered ram that took the here unnamed Isaac’s place.
The heavy symbolism deployed by Zuabi, who has also directed the piece, is both deceptively simple and resonantly fitting. Sheep are central – not only, in the most immediately obvious sense, as sacrificial lambs, but also as the guardians of sleep and dreams. Zuabi’s writing cleverly plays with and knits together the various myths that we have built around this animal, from the counting of sheep in order to nod off, to their resemblance to clouds, to our perception of sheep as creatures that blindly and submissively follow. And the symbolic flourish does not end here. In a nod to fertility and classic motifs of motherhood, Abraham’s frantically protective wife is constantly pressing glasses of milk into her troubled son’s hands; fear smells like the metal of the knives that slaughter the sheep and the machinery that makes a clinical factory of death. Smell itself is another recurring theme, returning again and again with disturbing repetition.
In keeping with Zuabi’s writing, the magical and the unsettling are both equally evoked by his production in the stark, bare space of Jon Bausor’s set. A disconnect between performers and audience, reflecting the dislocation of the slaughtering process from the greedy process of consumption described by the sheep, is encouraged through the juxtaposition of surreal elements and an occasionally mechanical dynamic to the performances. While the emotion can be pitched close to heartbreaking during naturalistic scenes, such scenes are broken by the startling appearance of disconcerting, white-faced sheep dangling from hooks and by unexpected moments of humour.
Reinforced by the overarching symbolism, there is a calculated symmetry to Zuabi’s cyclical tale, in which patterns are repeated across the generations and early-planted narrative seeds later burst into flower. As we move from the son’s disturbed childhood to his adult experiences, damaged father-son relationships are painfully replicated. Paired with the prominence of signs and symbols and the creation of a narratorial voice through the use of the onlooking sheep, this emerges as a deftly judged marriage of form with Biblical content. There is also something deeply apt about the use of a religious story that is recognised across the Palestinian writer’s troubled homeland, a geographical location that is underlined by the use of a mixed Palestinian and Israeli cast and repeated, ominous mention of “borders”, but quite what significance Zuabi’s unsettling fable has for the continuing conflict in this region is never coherently realised.
For all its meticulously constructed plot arc and carefully traced symbolism, it is not clear what we should take as the sum of these astutely assembled parts. The sense that the world is out of balance, dangerously off-kilter, is perfectly convincing, but Zuabi is less persuasive at demonstrating how this imbalance might be righted.