In the august surroundings of Rainy Hall in Edinburgh, Scotland with its wood-paneled walls, lofty beams and grey stone architecture, Israel’s devastating attack on Gaza is being replayed.
The university dining hall has been reincarnated as a temporary theatre for the duration of Edinburgh’s festival season with the drama, Go to Gaza, Drink the Sea, performed daily to a mixed audience of the concerned and the curious. Strangely, the curious have yet to include any of the major theatre critics who throng to the city every summer.
The production was first seen in London in February when it represented an immediate reaction to the revulsion felt by many over Israel’s sustained onslaught of Gaza claiming the lives of hundreds of civilians. The play was created by writer, actor and director Justin Butcher, who enjoyed notable success on the eve of the invasion of Iraq with his satirical play, The Madness of George Dubya.
Butcher collaborated with Palestinian co-writer-director Ahmed Masoud in developing the play which had a modest run at Theatre Technis earlier this year, earning the praise of the Guardian’s doyen of critics, Michael Billington, who described it “deeply felt, humane and vividly expressive” and also noted the “astonishing set” created by artist and theatre designer, Jane Frere, from a mountain of shoes.
The shoes were also seized upon by the London Jewish Chronicle, which railed against them as “anti-Semitic” because of the supposed comparison with the shoes of Auschwitz and an inferred reference to the Holocaust. Palestinian lawyer and award-winning writer, Raja Shehadeh, was drawn into the argument having to point out to the newspaper that there was no monopoly over the imagery of shoes.
The rubble of Gaza’s bomb sites is also cleverly symbolized by shoes in the Edinburgh version — cut down to fit the needs of the temporary space where the set has to be put up and brought down within minutes for each performance.
Actors and volunteer stage hands bustle to put up the set moments before the audience pours in. The play itself has been updated but still draws on contemporary reportage, combined with a personal narrative loosely derived from the experiences of Ahmed Masoud’s family still in Gaza.
When the play opened at the beginning of the month, Masoud, who movingly described his return to Gaza bearing scarce medical supplies following his mother’s operation for cancer in the New Statesman recently, found himself trapped there and unable to leave for the rehearsals. Eventually he managed to exit through Rafah to return to his pregnant wife in their London home and to see the production in Edinburgh.
The play’s strength is to reveal at close quarters in very human terms the impact of cold-blooded military violence on ordinary civilian lives. It recalls the horror of the dead and injured, the collateral casualties even among those under United Nations protection, but it most trenchantly illuminates the imposition of human anguish and suffering on a whole people, an action which nevertheless fails to diminish the sheer will to survive and lead “normal” lives.
With some irony, it is the loss of the will to live by the central character, Sharaf (played by Amir Boutrous, a Palestinian actor who grew up in Israel) that provides the unifying thread running through a series of disturbing vignettes. The disorientated youth wanders through a war zone in search of his own death, encountering the miseries and misfortunes of others along the way.
Palestinian musician Nizar Issa, who also acts in the play, provides a series of haunting laments linking the flow of scenes, while newsreel images selected by film designer Zia Trench flicker overhead.
The cast take on various identities. Lebanese actress Alia Zougbi transforms from truculent teenager to terrified tot, but is particularly strong and convincing when she is the voice of Omer Goldman, the Israeli Schministim protester who defied her own father, then serving in the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, and preferred jail to being conscripted into the Israeli army.
Damian Kell takes on the roles of the UN agency for Palestine refugees’ Gaza operations chief, John Ging and BBC reporter Christian Fraser with confident aplomb, while Fisun Burgess breaks hearts with her gut-wrenching appeal as Sharaf’s mother. It is left to Rupert Mason, as tunnel trader Abu Mohammed, to provide much of the gallows humor that punctuates the darkness, and as the storyteller to guide Sharaf with his death wish through the unrelenting gloom.
The play comes together perhaps most poignantly in a moving ritual creating a circle of shoes while the actors recite the names of the dead of the Samouni family in Zeytoun, who lost 26 members, including 10 children and seven women.
If mass media coverage of tragedies and travesties such as Gaza no longer succeeds in touching the heart, perhaps we need more people to see plays like this one. I defy anyone to remain unmoved.
For more information about Go to Gaza, Drink The Seavisit www.assemblyfestival.com.
Neville Rigby is a London-based writer and strategy consultant covering a range of topics from culture to international health policy.