Rocket fire lights up the night sky, the outside is a no-go zone and even the cemeteries have been obliterated by shells. The Palestinian setting of writer and poet Dalia Taha’s new play is a world under siege, where two families refuse to give up their ground and flee, and two children form a friendship in the debris.
Khalil and Lubna teeter on the brink of puberty, while their two families edge increasingly close to collapse. Khalil’s father Ahmad refuses to let go of the way they lived before the war, planning futile gestures to shake up the world of the occupiers, to make them feel a fraction of his pain. Lubna’s mother Nahla has been torn apart by the death of her boy Ali, who she cannot bring herself to believe died for nothing and at random rather than a martyr for his people.
Both families are drawn with tenderness and humour, both couples radiate a love for one another which hasn’t yet quite been pounded into the dust that sticks to their faces and fills their hair on the rare occasions that they dare leave the shelter of their homes. There are moments of sensuality and companionship snatched in the dead of night when the children sleep, even if the last flickers of hope have gone down with the power supply.
But the real strength of Taha’s writing, and of Richard Twyman’s production, are the children. The performances of Yusuf Hofri as Khalil and Shakira Riddell-Morales as Lubna (alternating the roles with George Karageorgis and Eden Nathenson) are superb, and it’s the way in which these children negotiate their deadly world that gives the play its beating heart.
Taha plays the innocence of the children against the desperate experience of their parents, but she also bravely and skilfully explores their changing relationship with their own bodies. One playfight ends in the shock of Lubna’s first period, and Khalil’s fixation on games of capture, holding and searching suggest a sexuality which is beginning to peep through into his life.
Fireworks has some problems. Structurally it tends towards the excessively schematic, and the point that adults retreat into fantasies created for their childrens’ protection while the children gradually come to a clear realisation of their situation is a little clumsily made. But Taha writes so well, both in occasional passages of poetic storytelling, as well as in the surprising bluntness of people struggling towards a horrible honesty. The pre-Eid setting also works wonders, as the promise of a new dawn, if only a brief one, with walks on the beach and a cessation of violence offering a vision of a new life that becomes increasingly incredible.
Twyman directs with detail and without haste or bombast, though Lizzie Clachan’s broken down design, a ramshackle garage-like shelter, combined with Natasha Chivers’ flash-bulb lighting design provides imagery that lasts long on the corneas.
Despite its bleakness and its violence, what really persists from Taha’s impressive play is a sense of human fortitude and of the resilience of family bonds, affections and imagination even in the worst of situations. Its epilogue looks forward twenty years, and though it’s unclear what kind of world exists beyond the frame of the spotlight, and Taha never flinches from the horrors that are surely to come, there is a fragment of hope in Lubna’s sad, clear and confident voice.