Review: Scenes from 68* Years, Arcola Theatre

“We live in a climate of fear – they’ve made that”

The asterisk in the title is important. It denotes the number of years since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and so if the play were to be put on again next year, it would be entitled Scenes from 69* Years. It all adds to the sense of living history that permeates Hannah Khalil’s Scenes from 68* Years, a series of snapshots from life in Palestine throughout that time in all its complexity as to build one nation, another must be broken.

It’s a deeply emotive subject but one which is approached with clear-eyed balance by Khalil. Her stories, collated from the experiences of friends and family, are presented as non-linear vignettes – a picnic interrupted by soldiers in 1992, a charity worker making an aid run in 2010, a boy playing a prank on his grandfather in 1978 and so on – but the perspectives they offer come from Palestinians and Israelis alike, giving details of how day-to-day life co-exists with headline-grabbing drama.

The swirling multiple strands are well-marshalled by director Chris White, delving into a well of the blackest comedy – Peter Polycarpou’s patriarch realising the joke is on him is as punchy and powerful a moment as you’ll see on stage all year. And the playfully makeshift nature of Paul Burgess’ set reinforcing the impermanence of lives being lived on the brink, one soldier away from a rifle butt in the face or even eviction.

Palestinian actress Maisa Abd Elhadi Skypes into a selection of scenes but otherwise the cohesiveness of the tightly-knit ensemble is hugely impressive as they flow seamlessly from one character to the next, delineated to a degree but not definitively so. For no matter whether its 1956 or 2016, canned peaches and children’s toys not being allowed through customs still rankles, and contrasting desires to escape the suffocation or return to the embrace of the motherland will always exist.

And it is this human dimension that resonates strongest, whether in single scenes like the soldier nervously exploring a fetish or recurring ones, like the conflicting emotions provoked by a Jewish émigré’s soul-satisfying pleasure in being able to find a home in Jerusalem as explained to the young Arab man whose mother was evicted therefrom. 

And as sorrowful polemicising finally raises its head at the climax, Khalil ensures that the focus is on maintaining oral history traditions, the passing-on of a story so that it is never forgotten, as 68 becomes 69, 70, 71…see how significant the living history of the title is – something that should resonate no matter what community you belong to.

Running time: 100 minutes (without interval)
Photos: Ellie Kurtz
Booking until 30th April

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