Review: Go To Gaza, Drink The Sea

By John Nathan, February 26, 2009

Theatro Technis, London NW1

The stage design of a pile of shoes in Go to Gaza, Drink the Sea clearly evokes the shoes of victims at Auschwitz

The stage design of a pile of shoes in Go to Gaza, Drink the Sea clearly evokes the shoes of victims at Auschwitz

The row over whether Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children - a play for Gaza at the Royal Court is antisemitic was still raging when this second, rushed response to Israel’s Operation Cast Lead opened in north London.

And so for the second time in as many weeks, I have opted to dispense with the star-rating system we use for indicating the quality of a production. Because for the second time in as many weeks, my job as a theatre critic has shifted from primarily judging whether a play is any good, to whether it is antisemitic.

And call me a puffed-up pundit, but an easily digestible, shorthand consumer guide seems a tad trite in this context.

This Palestinian/British collaboration, co-written and co-directed by Ahmed Masoud, who was raised in Gaza, and Justin Butcher, is a much more considered affair than Churchill’s offering, though it is no more objective.

I have no problem with bias in a play. Playwrights are entitled to it and political plays are not much good without it. The problem with Churchill’s play was that the bias maligned an entire people. It portrayed Jews — and it was Jews, not Israelis as some have argued — as a people who have lost their moral compass.

Go to Gaza, Drink the Sea makes no such generalisations. Its reasonable objective is to depict the often-wretched conditions in which the Palestinians of Gaza have to live.

And, to make its point, Masoud’s and Butcher’s narrative follows the fate of the shell-shocked Sharaf (Amir Boutrous), a young man who embarks on a grim odyssey to discover the best way in hellish Gaza to die.

His spiritual and territorial guide is the ghost-like Abu (Rupert Mason), a smuggler making full use of those much-debated tunnels. And around this loose narrative — easily forgiven in the time the play was put together — the evening veers between reportage and drama.

Predictably, it is the reportage that feels least reliable. Video projections of Operation Cast Lead are cut with distressing footage of wounded Palestinian children. There are what appear to be verbatim reconstructions. One is in the form of a witness statement from a Palestinian father describing how Israeli soldiers shot his daughters. Another is a monologue delivered by what appears to be an Israeli conscientious objector, who refuses to serve in the army, and who compares the Israeli Defence Force with Hamas.

But because the veracity of the source material is never explained — unlike for instance the Tricycle Theatre’s verbatim series of plays — you are left wondering what is fact and what is fiction.

I am not suggesting that there is any attempt at even-handedness here. But there is a discernible effort to avoid accusations of propaganda — even though it is an effort somewhat undermined by the play’s finale, in which Sharaf’s despair is expressed by a dance where a machine-gun is brandished, the message being, “see what we’re driven to?”

Much more convincing are the scenes unhampered by questions of objectivity, particularly where a Palestinian family is huddled in a room for days on end while jets soar overhead and their child goes mad with the confinement.

But what undermines this production is also what provides its most vivid imagery. Jane Frere’s design evokes rubble-strewn Gaza by placing a huge pile of shoes at one end of the set. It makes walking into the cavernous space of this Camden theatre not unlike entering the exhibition room at Auschwitz, where the shoes of thousands of the camp’s victims are piled high.

Now, I am not suggesting Jews have copyright over the use of shoes in drama, but here the pile is about the same size as that in Auschwitz, the reference to the Holocaust is unmistakable and the implication that Gazans are the victims of a Holocaust-like atrocity, pretty obvious. The message of Frere’s design is that Jews are committing the same crime as the Nazis.

It is a message that is not true, and not right.

And it is, I believe, antisemitic.

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Last updated: 11:28am, February 26 2009