Courtyard Theatre, London – until 1 August 2015
Guest Reviewer: Liz Dyer
Like most people, I’ve grown up hearing about the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. It’s always struck me as a heartbreaking and hugely complicated situation, and I’ll admit it’s one I’ve never fully understood, but always felt I should know more about. So when the opportunity arose to see A Land Without People in its world premiere at the Courtyard Theatre, I seized it with both hands.
Brian Rotman’s new play, brought to the stage by Palindrome Productions, bravely takes on the task of laying out the events of 1939-1948, leading up to the declaration of Israel as an independent state. The talented cast of five take on a multitude of characters – most of whom were real people – as we’re transported from Yorkshire to Jerusalem, from London to Tel Aviv. This requires not only an impressive range of accents (Roy Khalil particularly excels here) but also the ability to switch between characters – often becoming someone with an opposing view to the one they were stating so vehemently just moments before.
Even before the play begins, we’re reminded that this is not only a story about the two warring nations. There are other countries involved, most notably the British, who played a key role in the events described. And though they occurred long before most of the audience were born, it’s hard not to feel the weight of that responsibility, as the actors address many of their speeches directly to us. It’s a very intimate and inclusive performance, and an uncomfortable reminder that though the conflict may be happening far away, that doesn’t mean it’s nothing to do with us.
There are a lot of names, dates and facts thrown out during the course of the play, but despite this, it’s anything but dry. For me, it filled in some of the gaps in my knowledge, though of course 85 minutes is hardly long enough to make sense of something so immensely complicated. Rotman’s purpose is ‘the telling of a history’, and consequently the play uses material drawn from government archives and contemporary documents, to provide a factual account. It doesn’t try and give us any answers or impose an opinion, but does eloquently express the impossibility of finding a solution when both sides want to deal in black and white, even though the only true answer – if indeed there is one – lies in shades of grey. (As Ernest Bevin explains to his assistant, if he’s not 100% for the Jews, then he’s considered an anti-Semite; there is no middle ground.)
As you might expect from a drama about war, there are some truly haunting moments; the depiction of the Holocaust is brief but incredibly powerful, while the final moments of the play, featuring the ghostly effigy of a young Palestinian refugee will, I think, stay with me for a long time. The set, too, is beautifully done. The centre of the stage is functional, with a desk, chairs and a couple of coatracks holding an assortment of costumes for the actors’ different roles. But around the walls, between two large British flags – another reminder of our nation’s involvement – there are panels of newsprint, whose text, on closer inspection, reveals the faint outline of refugees who appear to be walking out of the walls towards us.
A Land Without People is not light entertainment, but then again, I never expected it to be. It’s informative – I certainly feel I now have a slightly better understanding of how it all came about – but also gripping, and a powerful reminder not only of past events, but of the fact that the violent and tragic conflict between Israel and Palestine is still raging nearly 70 years later, with no immediate sign of a solution.
Awarded ★★★★ by Guest Reviewer Liz Dyer @Lizzid82
Where: The Courtyard Theatre, Bowling Green Walk, 40 Pitfield Street, London N1 6EU
When: 9 July – 1 August, 7:30pm (running Tuesday – Saturday after first week) AfterWords – a free post-performance discussion with invited guests will take place on 16, 23, 30 July
A Land Without People will kick off the transatlantic company’s 2015 summer season. For more information, please visit http://www.palindromeproductions.org
Director: Lesley Ferris
Assistant director: Sophie McCartney
Stage Manager: Rachel Darwood
Set Designer: Brad Steinmetz
Costume Designer: Emily Stuart
Sound Designer: Katie Whitlock
Lighting Designer: Alex Kyle-Di Pietropaolo