“A property developer, a fighter and a bookshop owner – of those three, it’s the bookshop owner who finds himself stuck in here. That’s Israel for you.”
There’s an interesting tension at the heart of this production of Omar El-Khairy’s The Keepers of Infinite Space and though it is one that is never really satisfactorily resolved, it is still making me think today. El-Khairy’s play is a no-holds-barred indictment of the prison system in Israeli-occupied Palestine, taking root in the shocking statistic that up to 40% of the male population has been detained under military orders at one time or another. But director Zoe Lafferty’s vision seems to locate it in a less specific context, making its issues about incarceration more universal.
This she does by having her actors speaking in (presumably) their natural accents, so one of the prisoners is a Geordie, the governor a malevolent Scot. But though there are aspects of the story that reach beyond the Middle East – the brutality of torture and its effects on the guards that commit it, the way in which the past is often its own sort of jail that imprisons generations in endless cycles of hate – too much of it is inextricably tied to the details of El-Khairy’s narrative, of an innocuous bookseller caught up in crisis by family connections beyond his ken.
Edmund Kingsley is effective as Saeed, nonplussed by his ruthless treatment and lack of any apparent crime but though the seeds of the family drama to come are sown early on, the focus of the first half lies too heavily on his torture. It is grimly convincing stuff but not so satisfying dramatically, even with the subplot of Cornelius Macarthy’s newcomer to Israel finding it difficult to stomach their methods. The shallow breadth of Philip Lindley’s design allows for a fast-paced telling of the story (along with a few awkwardly blocked moments) but it is difficult to fully engage.
The second half though reaps the rewards of this prolonged set-up as Saeed’s relationships with Hilton McRae as his achingly tired father and Sirine Saba’s excellently impassioned wife bear fruit, and the prisoners with whom he shares his cell become more rounded as Patrick Toomey and Philip Correia are given more to play with. But given that El-Khairy rarely lets his writing veer from black and white certainty – the venomous enemy clear to see from the outset – the lack of nuance sadly neuters much of the intelligence that lies at its heart.