In seventy succinct and enthralling minutes, Semites provides the best account of the Palestine/ Israeli conflict you could ever want. By giving us voices from both sides of this conflict Semites encapsulates the essence of the conflict and yet still manages to offer grounds for hope. The evening begins as soon as one enters The Bunker theatre, for there you are met by the two actors Ben Nathan and Lara Sawalha who ask if they may have your shoes. These are then placed around the perimeter of the stage.
The piece starts with Ben and Lara going into character as they shout at each other. We hear Ben denounce the Arabs he refuses to call them Palestinians. And Lara denounces the Israelis. So far so predictable. But then Ben comes out of character and talks to the audience in his own voice. He explains why he is putting on Semites (usefully defined on in the programme as “a noun, a member of any of the peoples who speak or spoke a Semitic language, including in particular the Jews and Arabs“). He recalls a Saturday matinée after play meeting in which his fellow actors turned on him and he felt the need to defend Israel. Deeply disturbed by the experience (one young British female actor had shouted into his face at point blank range “you’ve never lived in fucking Gaza”) he decided to go to Israel and talk to both Jews and Palestinians. He spent three years researching and more importantly talking to Jews and Palestinians from all walks of life. Semites is the distillation of that process.
Back to the shoes. In a brilliant coup de theatre Ben and Lara take the shoes and put them onstage – then they put their own feet alongside the shoes and start talking in character. It’s a brilliant dramatization of the idea of standing in someone else’s shoes. Very powerful. Ben and Lara are both superb actors and so they give voice to the characters with convincing accents and gestures. Like Dickens “they do the police in different voices”. That is to say, they can embody poly vocalism of diverse Jews and Palestinians. Lara is superb as the Palestinian who can recite the list of his family members who “…live here, come from here…” counting them off on her fingers as she does so. And Ben pulls no punches in voicing the impeccable Israeli hardliners. The sufferings and claims of both sides are so convincingly expressed that stalemate seems the only possibility. Both sides have right on their side. The play might have ended at this point.
But no… Semites offers hope. Not through more violence but through dialogue as the only way to peace. Ben recalls a Palestinian peace activist who having been held up for hours at an Israeli checkpoint lowers his window and starts talking to the Israeli soldier manning the checkpoint. He tells the soldier that he feels sorry for him because he is out in the rain whilst he is in the warmth of his car. Astonished, the Israeli soldier is taken aback, no Palestinian had ever felt sorry for him before. In such small face to face gestures will peace be made. Such is the powerful and surely indubitable message of Semites.
Review by John O’Brien
Palestinians and Israelis have one indisputable thing in common: they are all Semites.
Featuring recently gathered testimonies from Palestinians and Israelis, Semites, directed by Daniel Goldman (Thebes Land, You’re not like the Other Girls Chrissy) explores the challenges of living an ordinary life under extraordinary circumstances, of having dialogue with the other, of loss and hope, of staying alive. In a world of echo chambers, fake news and fear, we invite you to leave your preconceptions at the door, and open your eyes, ears and heart.
Semites is the culmination of three years of research and interviews on location in Israel and Palestine. Interviewees included students, farmers, yoga practitioners, lawyers, engineers, journalists, peace activists, settlers and combatants. Creator Ben Nathan heard stories from those who are Jewish, Muslim, Christian, secular, orthodox, settler, ideological, military and political, on both sides of the Green Line. Using family and friends in the region, and his familiarity with life on the ground, Ben gained the commitment and trust of these individuals, groups and organisations.
London Dates Tuesday 30th October – Saturday 3rd November 2018
Location The Bunker, 53A Southwark Street London SE1 1RU
from http://bunkertheatre.com/ or 0207 234 0486.
Bristol Dates Tuesday 6th – Saturday 10th November 2018
Location The Loco Klub, Clock Tower Yard, Bristol, BS1 6QH
Running time 75 minutes
Twitter @BunkerTheatreUK, @danielkgoldman, @LocoKlub
Conceived by Ben Nathan
Directed by Daniel Goldman
Dramaturgy by Tanushka Marah
With Lara Sawalha
Salaam Shalom is a Bristol-based Muslim/Jewish dialogue organisation focused on arts, media and education. Founded in 2006,