Sunday 31 January 2010

A lesson not a dialogue

I Am Yusuf and This Is My Brother, Young Vic, London

If you should decide to go to the Young Vic tonight, your theatrical experience will be framed between a dinner including ‘Palestinian olive oil’ (as specified by the menu of the theatre restaurant), and leaflets on how to help Palestine, distributed by the kind English ladies at the exit. Just in case it wasn’t clear enough, I Am Yusuf and This Is My Brother is a political play, and the whole of the Young Vic is participating in getting its message across: this, the history presented to you by the play itself, is bad - and it is your fault, too.

33-year-old author Amir Nizar Zuabi decided to write a play about the end of the British mandate in 1948 and its consequences on Palestinian people, because the date influenced his life, and yet he did not live through it. As he explained in a recent interview in the Financial Times, this work, presented in London as a co-production between the Young Vic and the Palestinian touring company ShiberHur, was about ‘trying to understand what would it be like for somebody with my sort of problems – small, trivial, complicated – to be suddenly smacked on the face with a historical event’. The aim: to remind people that those whose lives are destroyed by a war had been living normal lives up to that very moment.

Therefore, I Am Yusuf springs from a personal plot, a classic love story between star-crossed lovers Nada and Ali. Ali is the brother of the title, and Yusuf is a mentally impaired, good-hearted boy whose existence is the main obstacle, in Nada’s father’s eyes, to a marriage. There is more behind Yusuf’s story than initially meets the eye. But because this is 1948, suddenly romantic dilemmas and family tragedies are heightened and at the same time clouded by more urgent events: the United Nations’ vote in favor of the Partition Plan, the English departure from the territories, followed by the Arab-Israeli war, followed by displacement and destruction and refugee tent camps. While the first part of the play is a more or less linear sequence of events, the second part, marked by a swift change in set and lights which transforms the atmosphere on the stage from dusty sunshine to humid and disorienting darkness (with an enlarging, particularly evocative pool of water at its centre), is progressively desperate and mournful. In the first part we have physical comedy and mock fights between the two brothers, in the second half the living mix with the dead, and the frequent chanting turns from traditional to ritual.

There is sophisticated style in this production, and there is, as Zuabi declared was his intention, remarkably little anger. Annoyingly, however, there is also a very clear intent to tell the audience what to make of the story, an intent fully embraced from the moment you step into the Young Vic until the time you leave the building. The sensation of being preached at is not so much induced by the absence of Jewish characters: no one would really argue for a self-imposed, sterile balance of the parts, nor for an equality censorship coming from the outside. But when Zuabi explains in that same FT interview that ‘It was never about them [the Israelis] – that’s part of the reason why they’re not in the play – it was about us. It’s me, telling my story. I keep on saying this sentence: it is not against anybody; it is pro-me, pro-my culture, pro-my stories’, it has a ring of tongue-in-cheek hypocrisy about it. Surely in this particular context being pro one side in such a passionate way is very nearly inseparable from being against another. But the truly condescending, banalising attitude, the attitude that pulls the carpet from under the play’s feet, is that here, to quote Andrew Haydon’s review of a different play about Palestine, ‘We’re not being made to work at complexity, we’re being told that something is bad’.

The abstract idea behind Zuabi’s text is that it is possible for his play to do away with, and hence be freed from, political implications, simply by presenting this historical event as a personal, intimate story, and thus showing people, not principles (as if people could be stripped naked of the principles they incarnate and represent and live and die as a consequence of). But the result tends to be something which implies a precise political viewpoint, without engaging in an open discussion of politics. The play then becomes a lesson, rather than a discourse, without much space for negotiating responsibilities. In the case of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, making one-sidedness the norm is somehow more acceptable than with most historical events, and in the United Kingdom it also, to a point and in certain circles, socially commendable. The British sense of guilt might explain why not one single British critic questioned how one-dimensionally obtuse the British soldier in I Am Yusuf (who is also the only non-Palestinian character) is, offering his radio to the cute and single Palestinian girl with colonial condescension, but yet going back to his grey-skied Sheffield and washing his hands clean of the whole business.

But in spite of how common a choice it can be for this particular history, providing no context has always a shadow of moral laziness about it, and neither does it serve any higher, redeeming purpose - this is not a play that will make people consider things from a different point of view from the one they had held so far, or even from any point of view at all. Rather, it is a well-staged, in parts very poetic, but profoundly unchallenging sermon offered to the converted, with the unambitious result of making them feel better about themselves. If this was Zuabi’s intention, the scattered standing ovations when the lights came back on proved he succeeded.

Till 6 February 2010

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