Set during the Israeli assault on a Bethlehem church during the 2002 intifada, The Siege is a memorable dramatisation of courageous Palestinian resistance, says JOE GILL
The Siege Battersea Arts Centre, London SW11/Touring 5/5
THE 39-day standoff at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem during Israel’s West Bank invasion of 2002 is the focus of this Freedom Theatre production.
It begins on a deceptively upbeat note, as an engaging Palestinian tour guide thanks the audience for joining him on a tour of the church. Played with infectious enthusiasm by the wisecracking Ahmed Tobasi, he informs us that the Palestinians who built it under Emperor Constantine in the 4th century are the same as those living in Palestine today.
“We’re going to see Jesus,” he tells us as the action switches to the church-like interior, whose ornate lanterns, incense smoke and haunting Orthodox chants effectively evoke Christianity’s holiest of religious sites.
Suddenly, shots ring out and to a pulsing soundtrack four fighters armed with M16s and AK47s appear. An Israeli army loudspeaker and projected video footage of tanks and Israeli troops outside the church — taken from the real siege — immerse us in the state of mortal threat.
The fighters shout and argue. One is bleeding heavily from a wound to the leg. The priest demands to know what they are doing in the church but the holy site is a sanctuary and though they immediately offer to leave he lets them stay.
The symbolism of the events and location of the siege during Israel’s invasion of the West Bank during the last intifada are rich in drama, not least because the events are located in the very spot where Jesus purportedly led his own quixotic resistance to an overwhelmingly powerful occupier 2,000 years before. Among the fighters there are Muslims and Christians but they pray and stand together.
The play, written by Nabil Al-Raee — who co-directs with Zoe Lafferty — blurs the line between art and a lived reality of human beings in extremis. This is war and resistance at its most visceral and terrifying.
We share the hurt, pain, hopes, humour and dreams of these men who, in the end, land up in the most unlikely of bolt-holes because they want to live in dignity in their own land.
There are no gimmicks, narrative or point-of-view sleights of hand in a production which emerged from extended conversations with the exiled fighters who had to leave for Europe in the deal brokered by the EU to end the siege.
It is a heart-wrenching, profound cri de coeur from the heart of the occupation, down to the little things that people hold onto when they are pushed to the edge, when they are hungry and trapped with nothing but their joint commitment not to be crushed by the occupier.
There are songs, jokes, a game of checkers and a detailed description of how they would prepare the Palestinian staple maqlouba or the perfect coffee. This they savour and share, even though in reality it is just a cup of water.
The actors, three of whom (Ahmad al Rokh, Faisal Abu Alheja and Tobasi) are from Jenin refugee camp and lived through the siege there, stand in a line before us, telling us what happened. Whether it is acting or testament matters not — this is their truth and they lived it.
Occasionally a mobile phone rings from family members or loved ones outside and, in an oddly hilarious scene, the Israelis have a mother of one of the fighters (Hassan Taha) on a loudspeaker.
They want her to tell her son to surrender but she refuses. She tells him: “I swear I will cut off my breast... I will disown you.” He is, unsurprisingly, distraught and wants to go out in a suicidal blaze of fury.
The actors, without any visible artifice, reveal the character of these men in all their humanity — in turn bewildered, terrified, fragile, brave, at odds with one another or united in resistance.
They do not represent all of those who experienced the siege, which included monks and nuns and 200 civilians sheltering from the Israeli offensive. But, through the fighters’ story, we understand something of the struggle and the spirit of the Palestinian people under occupation.
The Siege is a triumph for Freedom Theatre. With its current tour of Britain, it will surely light a fire of empathy among audiences who will briefly get to know the Palestinians of Bethlehem and be inspired by this act of cultural resistance.
nPerformances of the The Siege take place at St Mary in the Castle, Hastings on May 28, The Merlin, Frome on May 30, REP, Birmingham, June 4-6, Nottingham Playhouse, 10-11 June, The Cut, Halesworth, June 13 and The Tron, Glasgow, June 17-20.