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Review of Moormaid at the Arcola Theatre, London

Moormaid, Arcola Theatre (Moe Bar-El and Sarah Alles) - courtesy of Anika Wagner
Moormaid, Arcola Theatre (Moe Bar-El and Sarah Alles) – courtesy of Anika Wagner

Part way through Moormaid, a brief play, albeit one with an interval, I began to associate the religious prayers of the Islamic faith with extremism. Almost immediately, I took umbrage with myself for making such a connection so automatically: the two are not, of course, mutually exclusive.

As the play continued to unfold, it became clear my initial instinct was correct, at least for the particular set of circumstances in this play. I was nonetheless sympathetic to Mehdi (Moe Bar-El), wondering why Melissa (Sarah Alles-Shahkarami) wasn’t reacting like a ‘normal’ person would to the realisation that Mehdi and his brother Khan (Ali Azhar) had indulged in joining “the fight for the Holy Caliphate”, remaining arguably too calm and collected.

A relatively bare stage, giving a light and breezy atmosphere, provides a striking juxtaposition to the dark storyline, which has some nuance. For instance, what some people would call a ‘terrorist’ finds himself saving Melissa from being taken by her own hand. But for all the prayers that are said, an extra-marital relationship is not looked kindly upon by most people in most societies, whether steeped in religion or not. I found Mehdi’s attitude towards Melissa rather disturbing – he ignores repeated requests to get out of the flat she shares with her off-stage ‘away on business’ husband, having arrived suddenly without an appointment or any pre-warning of his visit, and proceeds to insist that he will stay in Melissa’s house, free of charge, until he determines he’s stayed long enough.

From a feminist perspective, I can only say this: oh dear. The patriarchy is alive and well. Worse still, Melissa gets up and goes to work, earning her keep, leaving Mehdi to lounge about at leisure all day. As that would make for boring dramatics, Khan comes back to the scene, having initially tracked his brother down due to Mehdi’s irritating habit of taking Khan’s belongings when feeling under pressure. For reasons that are explained in the narrative, Khan has now entered the afterlife, and after freely admitting the ‘reward’ of seventy-two virgins is a mere myth, he has a conversation with Mehdi from beyond the grave. Khan doles out instructions not entirely unlike Hamlet’s father.

The script is good, but not great – its deepest expression of irony, for instance, is an explosion of emotion from Melissa whilst she asserts she is not angry. Elsewhere, Melissa and Mehdi start painting each other’s faces. Given their prior discussion about freedom and what it really means to be ‘free’, the face paint seems to take a similar symbolism to that of the face paint in Lord of the Flies, where that story’s characters are seemingly liberated from the rules and generally accepted behaviours of the society from which they came.

The production is very artistic in more ways than one, but it’s too much of a slow burner to maintain interest throughout. The script does allow for hope for a happy ending, without definitively concluding that everything will necessarily turn out all right in the end. This is, all things considered, a deeply thoughtful production. One more thing: it is worth mentioning that all three actors make their UK professional theatre debut in this show – they are all convincing in their roles.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

Set in Berlin, Moormaid is a thrilling chamber-play about self-destruction and rebirth that attempts to understand the fear currently gripping the European psyche, and the threats that may be posed by our own alienated youth. Bott’s inspiration for Moormaid came in 2014, when she discovered that two of her old classmates had travelled to Syria to fight for IS and didn’t come back. She was shocked by the banality with which the news was discussed and how this absurdity has now become a normality.

Berlin. Eleven past eleven. Art teacher Melissa is about to do something drastic. Seeking a place to hide, her ex-pupil Mehdi interrupts her momentum. This meeting is the key to her questions as Melissa represents a depressed and fearful generation longing to break out. Medhi is the mirror of her darkest and greatest desires – he provokes and draws out all the suppressed aspects of her personality and brings them back to life, no matter how uncomfortable it becomes. Both embark on a turbulent journey, painting and battling their way through the past. Moormaid has been kindly supported by Arts Council England and Arcola Theatre.

Writer Marion Bott
Director Zois Pigadas
Designer Sophia Simensky
Lighting and Sound Designer Tim Boyd
Producers The Alchemist and Fine Line Productions
General Manager Kosky Productions

Mellissa – Sarah Alles
Mehdi – Moe Bar-El
Khan – Ali Azhar

Wednesday 18th April – Saturday 19th May 2018
Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, Dalston, London E8 3DL


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