One of Shakespeare’s more famous plays, Henry V is known for the famous speech in which the eponymous king urges on his warriors: “we happy few, we band of brothers.”
Try picturing it, then, re-imagined through the medium of dance theater, and amalgamated with the story of the Palestinian struggle against Israel. It sounds like an unlikely combination, but it’s exactly what UK dance troupe al-Zaytouna have set out to do with their innovative new production Unto the Breach, which debuts this month.
“This show is definitely different. We are stepping outside our comfort zone, if you like,” says leading cast member Ahmed Najar. A Palestinian who moved to London from Gaza years ago, Najar plays central figure The Chairman.
He is “a symbol … If you were the British, you think of it as Henry V; if you’re Palestinian, you think of him as Arafat. Everyone sees it in their own perspective,” explains Najar.
An English actor who has worked in Palestinian refugee camps, Clare Quinn says the traditional folk dance, dabke, has been an important part of holding onto Palestinian identity. Quinn portrays The Chairman’s voice: the play’s chorus, who explains the story to the audience.
“The dabke is astonishing … [it is] an art form that should really be celebrated,” she enthuses.
The adaption is a fairly free one: “But as we go on, some of my language certainly moves from the original Shakespearian text,” Quinn says. By the end of the show, lines come from the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish: “our greatest writer and theirs,” as Quinn puts it.
Palestinian struggle in its rightful place
I had been invited to interview the cast during a run-through by a friend of mine, the director Ahmed Masoud (another Palestinian from Gaza turned Londoner). For Masoud and Algerian co-director Hadjer Nacer, reaching out to English audiences was an important motivation.
The group hoped to “diversify our audience,” compared to their previous productions, explains Nacer. “This time we are actually appealing to … a general audience who probably don’t know anything about Palestine.”
Masoud says: “We chose Henry V for themes that would fit in more as a celebration of resistance and revolution, which ties in more with the Arab spring.”
The uprisings that swept the Arab world in 2011 inspired the company, explains Nacer: “We were really excited like the rest of the Arabs.” They put on did a short show, but thought it was not enough, and decided to do a whole production. This ultimately resulted in Unto the Breach.
Masoud explains that part of the motivation was to put the Palestinian struggle back in its rightful place: “[it’s] the core of the whole thing … people [in the west] look at the Palestinian revolution as a militant revolution only as separate from the events of the Arab world.”
“Hopefully [we will] make them curious” to learn more, says Nacer.
A volunteer company
An all-volunteer company, al-Zaytouna has put on several previous productions, including an adaption of Ghassan Kanafani’s classic short story, Ila Haifa (“Return to Haifa”) and 2010’s Between the Fleeting Words, which was an original story — a more abstract play inspired by Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry.
Another member of the cast, Mariam Ozanne says: “we all have full time jobs as well. I’m an engineer, we’ve got doctors and lawyers and finance people.” It can be difficult to fit it all in, but “I love it … we’re all here because we’re passionate about it,” she explains.
While Masoud and Nacer obviously have a lead role in devising the play, “we’ve all put bits to it, every single person of the cast has come up with ideas, some of us have choreographed dances,” says Ozanne.
Najar says that the English dancers among the cast have taken to dabke well: “We thought it was going to be a bit difficult, but it’s actually not … [although] in general, English people like to be … a bit more precise with the moves, whereas dabke is about [being] upbeat and being happy and relaxed … [and] spontaneous … But I think English people struggle to be spontaneous!” he jokes.
The play touches on more controversial issues too, Ozanne explains: “We’ve got a scene which is loosely representing … the Oslo accords when the chairperson does make an agreement with the Israelis.”
Najar explains that it also goes into internal Palestinian politics: “it touches on it, though we don’t go too deeply into it … we feel a bit too ashamed for that, we don’t want to put our dirty laundry out to the public. But I think we believe that the public deserves to know.”
Talking about the brainstorming process that led them to adapt Shakespeare, Masoud hints at what their next production could be like: “the consensus was to choose a more universal story [than previous shows] … people were suggesting different things, including Oliver Twist, which I thought was a really good suggestion!”
Al-Zaytouna’s mission to bring a little bit of Palestine to the UK looks set to continue for some time to come.
Unto the Breach runs 9-10 November at the Artsdepot in London. Tickets are available now from the Artsdepot box office. To find out more about al-Zaytouna, visit their website.
Asa Winstanley is a journalist from London who has lived and worked in occupied Palestine.