Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Review • THE ARAB-ISRAELI COOKBOOK • Gate Theatre, London • 2004

Sheila Hancock & Jerome Willis in The Arab-Israeli Cookbook Photographer - Tristram Kenton

Sheila Hancock & Jerome Willis in The Arab-Israeli Cookbook
Photographer – Tristram Kenton

Behind the newspaper headlines and the television reports what is life really like in Israel and the Palestinian territories? What does it feel like to be a Greek-Orthodox Arab living in Israel? Or an American Jewish immigrant widow, a Palestinian in Ramalla, a Jerusalem bus driver, a gay couple in Tel Aviv, or a Christian in Bethlehem? Robin Soans’ new play will tell you, for it enables us to take a glimpse into the lives of forty different real people, people with whom he talked in Israel and the West Bank in autumn last year. Their words make up this play. Words of fear, words of home, words of love, words of everyday… and recipes: recipes for chicken with stuffed zucchini, stuffed vines, falafel, humous, kanafa, a restaurant’s speciality veal…. Food to satisfy, food to savour, food the cooks are proud of… Here we are in Jewish kitchens, Arab kitchens, the falafel shop, at the humous maker’s, joining a family at Rosh Hashanah (New Year).

On a traverse set by Rachel Blues, with two cooking and food preparation areas and suggestions of patio, garden, beach and sea, a cast of eight brings all these lives before us. Tom McKay begins the play as Fadi, an Orthodox-Christian Arab, speaking directly to the audience, chatting to us and establishing a rapport, which is vital to the success of this production. Sheila Hancock is Nadia, his mother. The cast will metamorphose into several other characters, inhabiting each different personality with ease and sincerity, sharing their lives, their experience. There are no middle-eastern accents to represent ethnicity: everyone speaks and plays as English, to include American and Australian, and this perhaps helps us to make contact with these people who are just like us, our grandparents, our parents and our children. Keith Bartlett, Amanda Boxer, Daniel Pirrie, Abigail Thaw, Ben Turner and Jerome Willis are the other actors who form this ensemble. They play exceptionally well together and all must share equal credit.

Inevitably, there will be individual moments that remain most vividly in the memory of each member of the audience. It might be the bus driver describing the day he was second instead of his usual first in a queue of buses and the bus in front blew up, the student always travelling with his back-pack filled with chemistry books in front of his face, determined to leave it unscarred even should he die, but himself suspected of being a terrorist because of his bulky bag, the Jewish men discussing how to get round strict orthodox rules to keep their winery Kosher, the pet finches called Samson and Delilah because the female plucked out the male bird’s feathers, a description of the forty-day siege in Bethlehem, a gay couple’s S&M cat, victims fleeing from a bombing like ghosts covered in white paint, a young Arab worried cause he can never get a tan, a New York Jew scorning an Israeli fashion for sushi, the folding of dolmades, a young Jew being conscripted, a bullet riddled gate where an ambush for Hamas members in a white Peugeot also killed a Christian father and daughter in another white Peugeot that arrived before it, the Israeli soldier at a check-point and little Arab friend who sells chewing-gum, the elderly couple who don’t go out because it is not worth waiting ninety minutes at a checkpoint and the same when coming back. There are happy moments and moments of pure horror. All are shared with us, for these are not actors spouting monologues but people interacting — with each other and with us — not imparting information but telling us what happened and what happens to them.

This play is not partisan. It is directed by Rima Brihi and Tim Roseman, an Arab and a Jew. It doesn’t strive for self-conscious political balance, but it is cleverly crafted, making this a very funny, moving and effective piece of theatre. For much of the time I felt tears welling in my eyes: often tears of laughter, sometimes just tears, for these are people and stories that tear the heart. “It is no good looking at things in a western way,” they say. The driver whose bus route is changed to avoid Arab areas: “You can’t re-route your life.” “I’ve reached a centre point of despair.” “The struggle is to humanize myself again.” Voices that echo each other and could be our own. But joy here too, a celebration of humanity and life.

This is a play you should not miss. I hope it will soon be presented the length and breadth of the land. Even if you cannot get to see it, at least, like a Jewish family seen here on Rosh Hashanah celebrating the New Year, at least take piece of apple, dip it in a bowl of honey, and make a wish: a wish for sweetness through the year, a wish for Peace, and a toast “To Life!”

Howard Loxton © 2004

Originally published on R&V on 15-06-04

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