Scenes From 68* Years, Arcola Theatre, London ★★½

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

Writing about life for Palestinians in the Middle East is fraught with difficulties for those of us who have never experienced life there. Journalists who try and cover the tensions there are often pulled up, by people from all sides, on the wording they choose to use to describe even the nature of the conflicts in the region since Israel’s formation as a state in 1948. What is not in dispute is that there are areas, such as Gaza, where Palestinian people struggle with extreme poverty and lack of resources, just as there are areas where Israeli families live under fear of rocket attacks by Hamas-led militia.

Whether Hannah Khalil’s new play, Scenes from 68* Years, will throw any light on the tumultuous and complex scenarios at play is doubtful. Presented as an overlong, jumbled collection of fragmented scenes, an array of seven actors present a multiplicity of roles in a series of vignettes of civilian life in the shadow of the conflict.

Some of the most notable among these include the tale of a young Palestinian man who wants to transfer his academic career from Birzeit University to London, only for his mother to protest that such a brain drain is a form of defeat and capitulation. That is contrasted with an Israeli teenager who tells her parents that, against their wishes, she is staying in Israel to study and do her national service. But many of the scenes lack subtlety: the Jerusalem woman who proudly shows off her home to the young Palestinian man whose family once lived there paints the former as the ultimate in insensitive housewives, while the view of stifling bureaucracy, with arbitrarily closed checkpoints and interminable lines for passports, at least shows that jobsworths are a universal threat.

Paul Burgess’ design, which sees furniture from chairs and tables to fridges and filing cabinets being used and reused, only occasionally feels that it is bringing anything to enlighten the scenes, and often the reverse. Some, but not all scenes, are dated by a year showing a noisy, static-filled TV screen, which does not help bring a sense of cohesion to the disparate scenes.

The acting talent on stage is more effective in this regard. Peter Polycarpou stands out, his comedic skills bringing a sense of affectionate character moments in a series of characters including a recurring role that shows that cab drivers are pretty much the same the world over. Elsewhere, Taghrid Choucair-Vizoso, Pinar Ogun and Mateo Oxley each have scenes in which they bring more to their characters than is on the page.

The stories of life under oppression and the portmanteau scenes bring to mind Bertolt Brecht’s Fear and Loathing of the Third Reich, revived recently at the Union Theatre. But where that play feels moving throughout, Scenes From 68* Years only really manages the same gut-punching effect in its final scene, as Polycarpou’s old Palestinian recounts the events in which he and his fellow villagers were forced out of their homes at gunpoint.

Khalil includes an asterisk in the title of her play to suggest that future revivals of the work update its name to reflect how many years will have passed since Israel’s creation in 1948. On the evidence of this production, such certainty of a future revival seems unduly optimistic.

Scenes From 68* Years continues at the Arcola Theatre until April 30.

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