Semites ★★★★

Disclosures from Israel and Palestine opening eyes, hearts and minds to the other in conflicted territory

“You don’t make peace with your friends; you make peace with your enemies.” Audience members are already actively engaged by the time they hear this powerful opening declaration. Smiling performers Ben Nathan and Lara Sawalha have invited them to take off their shoes as they enter the space, with the promise they will play a part in the action. Many readily accept the invitation.

Nathan and co-creators Sawalha and director Daniel Goldman come up with extraordinarily inventive ways to engage fresh, active thinking. The two actors take up entrenched positions and hurl preconceptions at each other, one ranting that “Jews are always harping on about the Holocaust”, the other retorting equally inflammatory statements, like “Palestinians invented the idea of Palestine”. But then they direct their audience to coloured cards under their seats. We’re invited to show either green or red depending on which statements we agree/disagree with. And there is much more airing of the preconceptions they seek to challenge with powerful testimonies from Israelis and Palestinians of every shade of opinion.

Semites at Bunker Theatre. Photo Mark Senior-4.jpg

Nathan’s ‘verbatim theatre’ script uses recorded statements presented exactly as they were given. He includes his own, often uncomfortable, even frightening experiences while recording these testimonies. At an event where the post-show discussion turned decidedly hostile, one participant growls: “You’ve never even been to effing Gaza.” Conversely, he finds himself in surprisingly congenial surroundings on Yom Hazikaron, the day to remember soldiers who fell in Israel’s many wars, attending a huge stadium event organised by coexistence campaigners Combatants for Peace, to remember the fallen of both communities.

Other effective ideas include a canter back through history, through intifadas, wars, the Shoah, the founding of the State of Israel, which for Palestinians brought the Naqba (the ‘disaster’), to the Balfour Declaration, Ottoman Empire, Crusaders, Roman Empire, and right up to the point where the history of both Arab and Jew begins with Abraham, father of both Isaac and Ishmael. And there’s a quirky little comedy scene where the actors use cod Northern accents to act the parts of neighbours “up North” in England fighting over what they refer to archly as the “you know” – never mentioning that it is actually the hedge between their properties – a metaphor for the Wall that divides Israel, designed to keep out Palestinians.

The actors carefully place pairs of ‘borrowed’ shoes in the spotlight to represent their interviewees. An especially moving account is from a Palestinian caught up in the usual 90 minutes of humiliation in a queue at a checkpoint, made worse by an angry young Orthodox soldier revelling in taking his time. It’s cold and wet, so quite without irony the Palestinian sympathises with him when it’s his turn to wind down his window. After all, he’s the one waiting in a nice warm car. As he drives away, he notices the traffic moving notably faster behind him. Other testimonies are read aloud from cards by volunteers from the audience.

Finally, before those shoes are reunited with their owners, they have a message: “To walk in another’s shoes, you must take yours off first.” For this packed house the message is a potent one. Semites is a brave, challenging and provocative piece of theatre that succeeds in stimulating vital new discussion of one of the most dangerous issues of our time.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Mark Senior

This review of Semites is from the London run at The Bunker, Nov 2018. The show continues in Bristol Tuesday 6 – Saturday 10 November. Phone for times. £12, £10 concs. The Loco Klub, Bristol, BS1 6QH. 011 7941 3857.

Note: Semites is supported by Salaam Shalom, the Bristol-based Muslim/Jewish dialogue organisation focused on arts, media and education. They aim to “stimulate dialogue and understanding between Muslim and Jewish communities and the wider communities in which they live”.

Listen to our interview with Ben Nathan on JR OutLoud.