The List 21/08/09
Justin Butcher and Ahmed Masoud’s production is a bleak reminder of the human consequences of the Zionist aggression in Gaza, particularly focusing on the recent bloodbath enacted in the last days of the Bush government.
Its story focuses on a young man who takes refuge on Gaza beach when the IDF incursion threatens his home village. There he meets a figure, half Mephistopheles, half angel, who digs himself out of a shelled tunnel, and takes his charge on a grim tour of the war zone.
This format allows for an examination of such issues as the Israeli use of white phosphorous shells, as well as several atrocities and the views of an Israeli conscientious objector who objects to her country’s policies. Throughout, the soulful musicianship of Nizar Al-Issa is showcased with some soulful songs about the ongoing murder and oppression, while Jane Frere’s phosphorous-coated set, consisting mainly of hundreds of shoes is deeply affecting. But the tone is perhaps too unrelenting, and there’s a danger that the show might simply be reiterating events we already know about. (Steve Kramer - The List - 21/08/09)
Elctronic Intifada 21/08/09
In the august surroundings of Rainy Hall in Edinburgh, Scotland with its wood-paneled walls, lofty beams and grey stone architecture, Israel’s devastating attack on Gaza is being replayed.
The university dining hall has been reincarnated as a temporary theatre for the duration of Edinburgh’s festival season with the drama, Go to Gaza, Drink the Sea, performed daily to a mixed audience of the concerned and the curious. Strangely, the curious have yet to include any of the major theatre critics who throng to the city every summer.
The production was first seen in London in February when it represented an immediate reaction to the revulsion felt by many over Israel’s sustained onslaught of Gaza claiming the lives of hundreds of civilians. The play was created by writer, actor and director Justin Butcher, who enjoyed notable success on the eve of the invasion of Iraq with his satirical play, The Madness of George Dubya.
Butcher collaborated with Palestinian co-writer-director Ahmed Masoud in developing the play which had a modest run at Theatre Technis earlier this year, earning the praise of the Guardian’s doyen of critics, Michael Billington, who described it “deeply felt, humane and vividly expressive” and also noted the “astonishing set” created by artist and theatre designer, Jane Frere, from a mountain of shoes.
The shoes were also seized upon by the London Jewish Chronicle, which railed against them as “anti-Semitic” because of the supposed comparison with the shoes of Auschwitz and an inferred reference to the Holocaust. Palestinian lawyer and award-winning writer, Raja Shehadeh, was drawn into the argument having to point out to the newspaper that there was no monopoly over the imagery of shoes.
The rubble of Gaza’s bomb sites is also cleverly symbolized by shoes in the Edinburgh version — cut down to fit the needs of the temporary space where the set has to be put up and brought down within minutes for each performance.
Actors and volunteer stage hands bustle to put up the set moments before the audience pours in. The play itself has been updated but still draws on contemporary reportage, combined with a personal narrative loosely derived from the experiences of Ahmed Masoud’s family still in Gaza.
When the play opened at the beginning of the month, Masoud, who movingly described his return to Gaza bearing scarce medical supplies following his mother’s operation for cancer in the New Statesman recently, found himself trapped there and unable to leave for the rehearsals. Eventually he managed to exit through Rafah to return to his pregnant wife in their London home and to see the production in Edinburgh.
The play’s strength is to reveal at close quarters in very human terms the impact of cold-blooded military violence on ordinary civilian lives. It recalls the horror of the dead and injured, the collateral casualties even among those under United Nations protection, but it most trenchantly illuminates the imposition of human anguish and suffering on a whole people, an action which nevertheless fails to diminish the sheer will to survive and lead “normal” lives.
With some irony, it is the loss of the will to live by the central character, Sharaf (played by Amir Boutrous, a Palestinian actor who grew up in Israel) that provides the unifying thread running through a series of disturbing vignettes. The disorientated youth wanders through a war zone in search of his own death, encountering the miseries and misfortunes of others along the way.
Palestinian musician Nizar Issa, who also acts in the play, provides a series of haunting laments linking the flow of scenes, while newsreel images selected by film designer Zia Trench flicker overhead.
The cast take on various identities. Lebanese actress Alia Zougbi transforms from truculent teenager to terrified tot, but is particularly strong and convincing when she is the voice of Omer Goldman, the Israeli Schministim protester who defied her own father, then serving in the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, and preferred jail to being conscripted into the Israeli army.
Damian Kell takes on the roles of the UN agency for Palestine refugees’ Gaza operations chief, John Ging and BBC reporter Christian Fraser with confident aplomb, while Fisun Burgess breaks hearts with her gut-wrenching appeal as Sharaf’s mother. It is left to Rupert Mason, as tunnel trader Abu Mohammed, to provide much of the gallows humor that punctuates the darkness, and as the storyteller to guide Sharaf with his death wish through the unrelenting gloom.
The play comes together perhaps most poignantly in a moving ritual creating a circle of shoes while the actors recite the names of the dead of the Samouni family in Zeytoun, who lost 26 members, including 10 children and seven women.
If mass media coverage of tragedies and travesties such as Gaza no longer succeeds in touching the heart, perhaps we need more people to see plays like this one. I defy anyone to remain unmoved. (Neville Rigby - Elctronic Intifada - 21/08/09)
Before the USA dragged the willing and the unwilling into the quagmire of Iraq, one play captured the 'Zeitgeist' as millions marched against war. Justin Butcher's The Madness of George Dubya was a sensational satire anticipating events early in 2009
Now from Butcher's pointed political pen, in collaboration with Palestinian co-writer/director Ahmed Masoud, has flowed a response to Israel's end of year onslaught on Gaza, a mirror to events that horrified many decent people throughout the world. If the ferocity of the blitz on Gaza's ghetto briefly stirred the conscience of the liberal West, it also revealed how numbed we have now become as bystanders witness to yet one more monstrous atrocity.
In the Edinburgh production, the initial hot-blooded reaction hailed as "deeply felt, humane and vividly expressive" by the Guardian's doyen of critics Michael Billington, has been tempered with a judicious update of the content, taken originally from contemporary reportage, and blended with a narrative derived from some personal family experiences of Ahmed Masoud, who on the eve of the Festival, found himself trapped in Gaza after returning home with scarce and precious medical supplies following his mother's operation for cancer, leaving his pregnant wife at their London home.
In February when the rushed production first aired in London, it was hailed for its 'astonishing design' - a set created by Scottish artist and theatre designer Jane Frere from a mountain of shoes. The use of shoes provoked immediate comparisons with holocaust images and resulted in an extended debate in the Jewish Chronicle which sought to brand the imagery as 'anti-semitic'. The shoes remain a focal point of this production, evoking not holocaust victims, but devastation of homes turned to dust and rubble.
The production sets out to show the impact of such cold-blooded military violence on the lives of ordinary civilians - not just the horror of the dead and injured in fighting and the collatoral casualties even among those under United Nations protection, but the anguish, the angst and suffering which fails to diminish the sheer will to survive and lead normal lives for most people. Ironically it is the loss of the will to live in the central character that provides the theme - a disorientated youth wandering in search of his own death and eventually driven to armed resistance and his ultimate demise.
However the play's most truly poignant moment is a virtual obsequy involving shoes and the recital of the names of one family - the Samouni - living in the Zeytoun neighbourhood. One family's death toll was assessed at 26, including 10 children and 7 women according to the Palestinian human rights NGO, Al Haq.
Ironically it was the founder of Al Haq, Raja Shehadeh, the Palestian human rights lawyer and Orwell Prize-winning writer and playwright, who was obliged to defend the play against the 'anti-semitic' slur in the Jewish Chronicle earlier this year. Now an Edinburgh audience can reach their own judgement on the updated version.(Stephen Barnes - Edinburghgude.com - 12/08/09)
To be perfectly honest had it not been for the Guy Masterson name attached to this production it would not have made my Fringe viewing list. With this subject matter my first thought was – don’t we get enough of this sort of thing on TV? Actually after seeing this No!
Co-written and directed by Justin Butcher and Ahmed Masoud. This harrowing yet poignant piece of theatre deserves to be seen by the whole world not just Fringe audiences in Edinburgh. Written very much from the heart as Ahmed is from Gaza, this play had me sobbing and laughing from the very first. Utilising real news footage from 2005 to the present day , it is horrific to realise only in December 2008 a 26 day conflict killed 1,400 people leaving 5,500 injured and that it occurred since the last Fringe.
Superbly written, produced and performed by Amir Boutrous, Fisun Burgess, Damian Kell, Rupert Mason, Alia Al-Zougbi and Nizar Al-Issa who composed the music and played the Oud as well as performing.
The stage set seemed strange until I linked the piles of shoes with similar piles seen today in disused concentration camps. The newsreels displaying atrocity, after atrocity and injured men women and children. I really do not want to put anyone off seeing this play as it touched me to the core and hope it gets to others. Could I give it 10 stars I would but sadly I can’t. If you can only see one piece of theatre this fringe make this the one! (Sheila - ONe-4-Review 10/08/09)
In 2003, Justin Butcher's The Madness of George Dubya launched a series of plays attacking the war in Iraq at this tiny north London theatre. Now, Butcher has joined forces with the Palestinian writer Ahmed Masoud, the artist Jane Frere and the film-maker Zia Trench to create an 80-minute piece responding to the situation in Gaza. While it makes no pretence to objectivity, it is a deeply felt, humane and vividly expressive reaction to the current crisis.
Its title springs from a slang Arabic phrase in which "Go to Gaza" is synonymous with "go to hell". The force of that becomes apparent the moment you step inside the theatre, where you are confronted, in Frere's astonishing design, by towering mounds of ashen rubble constructed out of shoes.
This becomes the setting for a series of vignettes of Gaza life loosely linked by the plight of a young man looking for a place to die: a somewhat redundant urge, as he is wryly reminded, in a blockaded territory suffering from dire water and electricity shortages, as well as intensive aerial bombardment. Politicised by the prevailing suffering, he joins the resistance forces, and finally finds the extinction he craves.
The somewhat self-conscious literary framework is less impressive than the sequences it contains. A young Gaza girl, in the midst of a fierce air raid, launches into a life-affirming dance, to her mother's horror. Similarly rejecting parental values, an Israeli woman describes how she was imprisoned for refusing to join the army. Most moving of all is the itemised reading of the names of 49 members of a Gaza family who all died after being moved, by the invading forces, to a supposedly safe house. The overall mood, reinforced by plangent songs delivered by Nizar al-Issa, is one of lamentation at the transformation of this once beautiful land into a living hell.
Created in three weeks and backed by large and small donors, including Jews for Justice for Palestinians, the show is not perfect, and has no time to explore the political context of military action. But theatre is not bound by rules of impartiality and balance: you don't, after all, get a fair picture of the French in Henry V. I stress the point only because this week has seen strenuous attacks on works like Caryl Churchill's Seven Jewish Children and accusations of antisemitism levelled at its supporters. I sincerely hope the same does not happen with this latest piece, which offers a moving plea for the cherishable value of every human life.(Michael Billington - The Guardian
British Theatre Guide - February 2009
This is a theatre piece that has been created in the last three weeks in reaction to what has been happening in besieged Gaza since Christmas with first air attacks and then a ground assault by the Israeli army which they called 'Operation Cast Lead.' It is essentially a piece of verbatim theatre, constructed from the interviews and statements from people in Gaza, video footage taken there, an Israeli government spokesman seen on television news and some scripted material which is itself based on actual people and events, and some beautiful songs sung by Nizar Al-Issa accompanying himself on the Ood.
It opens by welcoming us to Gaza (Retzu'at 'Azza in Hebrew) Azza being a sort of devil and therefore also welcome to hell where a white faced figure emerging from one of the tunnels constructed beneath the closed borders to bring some food, fuel, medicines - and arms - to those beleaguered there. He is both a real merchant and a sort of Virgil figure to lead us through the various levels of this Inferno but the personal stories that we encounter are entirely real. A mother waiting for her son to return, the choreographer daughter who tries to lift her own spirits with dance, the paramedic shot in helping, the father whose little daughter will never walk again, the extended family of 49 all dying together while sheltering in one member's house when the rest been destroyed, the UNWRA local head and the BBC correspondent who had informed the Israelis of exact locations of places used as shelters and with no military connection that were then bombed or shelled, the young man whose experience is driving him to take up arms.
Except for Israeli government-speak and one voice from Israel - a Jewish peace protestor talking telling us of her terror when the army she had once wanted to join now turned its guns on her - this is a view from Gaza. It is an emotive piece, a cry of pain made bearable by some beautiful and poignant songs. This is not a piece of political argument but a simple presentation of what life as it is now being lived. The writers, who are also co-directors, and co-deviser and designer Jane Frere have appropriated the image of shoes now closely associated with the Holocaust and the extermination camps in which so many Jews and others died and used it here with potent force. They have put together a powerful blend of theatrical elements that touch the heart.
However it is not just a plea for compassion and human rights ignored for it shows the reaction of joining the Hamas military. It does this through a piece of clever choreography, extremely effectively, but at the risk of romanticising the brutal facts and which turns waste of life into patriotic martyrdom rather than the tragedy for all of us that this play represents. It is played with great sincerity by Fisun Burgess, Rupert Mason, Amir Boutrous, Ali Alzougbi and George Couyas and it is almost unbelievable that something so effective could have been created in such a short time. At the first preview, which is when I saw it, a couple of voices were not yet quite matched to the playing space but that is something that should be easily corrected by the time my colleagues go to see it. (Howard Loxton - British Theatre Guide - Feburary 2009)
What's On Stage - February 2009
Put together from scratch in three weeks by a mixed British and Arab company, Go To Gaza, Drink The Sea is less a play and more an act of mourning. It is clumsy in places, incomplete, staggeringly partisan – and one of the most honest performances I have seen for some time. The London fringe has many wonderful things about it. It also has many plays by recent university graduates with trust funds, wanting to learn their craft before a minimal, and minimally interested, audience. This piece of work is the very opposite of that, a passionate, angry company with something urgent to communicate about how it feels to be Palestinian today.
Writer / directors Ahmed Masoud and Justin Butcher string together a number of true-life tragedies from the recent Israeli bombardment of Gaza, interspersed with news footage and traditional Palestinian music (beautifully performed by Nizar Al-Issa). Mostly it is unbearable. At first it is unbearable because the levels of audience manipulation seem so great: endless photos of dead babies, scary bomb blasts when you least expect them, a father clutching his maimed child’s teddy bear in a scene which feels straight out of Drop The Dead Donkey.
As it progresses relentlessly, it starts to be unbearable because, regardless of the politics, civilian death on that scale is unbearable. The show made me feel powerless – and for that reason if for no other I salute the makers for turning their own sense of powerlessness into something so sincere, so swiftly. We really do need more theatre like this.
There are other things to salute: a gorgeous, atmospheric installation-like setting, physically and emotionally engaging performances from a well-connected ensemble. On the other hand the artful lack of a balanced political landscape is infuriating. Hamas is portrayed as a wholly noble resistance movement born solely of necessity. There is one monologue from an imprisoned Israeli refusenik – other than that, the only Israeli voice we hear is that of Alan Dershowitz, former Israeli Ambassador to the US, and, more famously, legal defender both of OJ Simpson and of the US’s use of torture during the Gulf War.
Jane Frere’s extraordinary set, sculptural piles of shoes that stretch to the ceiling, does something to add some depth of context, bringing to mind, among other things, the piles of shoes in Auschwitz. But this work does not seem interested in being a measured and forward-looking consideration of recent politics. The time for that will hopefully come; for now, we have a howl of pain for the Palestinian dead. To review it in the conventional sense is as bizarre and inappropriate as reviewing a funeral. I hated it. And I urge you to go. (Sarah Chew - What's On Stage - 26/02/09)