The Siege, written by Nabil al-Raee, directed by Nabil al-Raee and Zoe Lafferty, touring the UK until 20 June.
Anyone who follows Palestinian arts will be at least slightly aware of Jenin’s Freedom Theatre.
At times controversial, it is a theater, a stage school, a space for Palestinian children to experience acting-as-therapy, and a platform for the idea of cultural resistance all in one.
The theater company’s first UK tour is an opportunity for audiences outside the occupied West Bank not only to see its work up close, but also an opportunity to prove that it goes beyond therapy or solidarity and is capable of aesthetic excellence.
Happily, the Freedom Theatre’s actors, directors and designers have risen to this challenge with gusto, proving themselves as artists as well as voices for a political message.
The Siege, developed by various members of the theater company, is set in Bethlehem during the 39-day siege which took place in 2002. Invading Israeli forces drove more than 300 Palestinian fighters and civilians to seek sanctuary in the Church of the Nativity, traditionally regarded by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus.
The setting for The Siege is the interior of the church itself, skilfully evoked with a specially-constructed set in which smoke, ornate hanging lamps, tiled floors and plainchant create an atmosphere redolent of this ancient place.
The backbone of the play is a series of scenes in the lives of a group of trapped fighters. Beginning with their chaotic, angry, frightened arrival in the church as they are driven back by a huge Israeli invasion, and ending with their anguished negotiations over whether to fight to the bitter end or to accept exile, we witness the group arguing, laughing, tending one another’s wounds, experiencing fear and suspicion.
Based on interviews with fighters who experienced the siege and were expelled to Gaza and Europe, these scenarios are by turns heartbreaking, thought-provoking and challenging to both actors and audience.
A scene in which the group hold down one of their comrades so that a medic can cut dying flesh from his leg wound is genuinely horrible to watch. For very different reasons, so is a psychologically complex episode in which a fighter is suspected of an act of treachery.
One of the most outstanding passages of the play, for its complex blend of humor and tragedy, depicts the waiting Israeli soldiers outside the church bringing the mother of one of the fighters to beg her son, via loudspeaker, to surrender.
Exploiting the Israeli soldiers’ ignorance of Arabic, she instead grasps the opportunity to stiffen the fighters’ resolve, telling her son that she will disown him if he does give himself up. The audience gets to share the joke, but also to witness the emotional chaos it induces among the imprisoned men, and the way they support their agonized comrade.
Perfectly balancing machismo and vulnerability, they “make” him the “perfect cup of coffee,” delivered alongside his favorite brand of cigarettes — American, but under the circumstances it’s allowed. In reality, both cigarettes and coffee — along with medicine and basic foodstuffs — have long run out.
But the make-believe cups and coffee pot, offered with a mixture of teasing and loyalty, are beautifully evoked; the men’s longing is almost palpable.
Tensions between the trapped fighters and their commanders outside are also acknowledged — perhaps with a nod to the growing distance between today’s ordinary Palestinians and their political “leaders.”
“They don’t feel with us, they are not in our situation,” one fighter says of orders he receives by phone that he doesn’t believe he can follow.
The unity between the besieged is, however, emphasized. On one hand, we are made aware of their diversity — Christians, Muslims, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. But we also see members of both faiths praying alongside one another, joined both by their common national heritage but also by the fact that “death is in the eyes of everyone.”
The structure of The Siege, though, doesn’t subject the audience to the unremitting tension and trauma of the six-week captivity.
In a note-perfect performance, Ahmed Tobasi depicts the tour guide, a character who delivers some superb comic relief and audience interaction, along with snippets of the Church of the Nativity’s long history — sometimes with the two combined, as he whips out lines such as “google it – but even Google don’t know as much as me.”
The other framing device for the play is akin to the interviews on which it is based. Periodically, the fighters line up to offer information on their story and, ultimately, to bring it up to date with some of the heart-rending details of life in exile.
As well as the play and performances themselves, technical aspects of the production are also worthy of comment.
First is the clever use of contemporary footage. This not only sets the scene, showing snippets from the Israeli invasion of Bethlehem, but is also used — with a light hand — to give a sense of the interaction between those trapped in the church and the military massed outside.
Secondly, there is the judicious and intelligent use of subtitles. Obviously these are needed for a largely English-speaking audience watching performances which are mostly in Arabic. But the play’s producers don’t try to deliver every single word.
Instead, the essentials of dialogue are translated, but during scenes of chaos and action the actors are trusted to convey the sense and spirit of what is happening, and the audience is trusted to grasp it. It demonstrates an admirable respect for both parties.
The Siege shows that, as well as being a social and political project, the Freedom Theatre is an artistic force to be reckoned with, capable of delivering new works which tackle big issues (what it means to struggle against occupation, or to be a fighter who is also part of a community, or to be a refugee not just once but twice over), but does so on an intensely moving, human scale.
And as well as the writing and acting talent on display here, The Siege also shows the theater group’s technical sophistication and willingness to use innovative staging.
So far, the UK tour has seen some sell-out shows and rave reviews: hopefully more international invitations will follow suit.
Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She is the author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-author, with Sharyn Lock, of Gaza: Beneath the Bombs.