Friday, February 13, 2009

Royal Court Theatre Gets Behind Gaza Headlines

Photograph: Tristram Kenton

The Guardian, February 11, 2009 - Where, at the moment, can you see plays about Israeli attitudes to Gaza.Muslim life in Britain and Germany's denial of its Nazi past? The answer is London's Royal Court. And, having bashed the Court last year for its bias towards American plays, I would now like to praise it for connecting with the big issues. I can't think of any more urgent task for a theatre such as the Court than that of addressing the world we live in.

I suppose Caryl Churchill's 10-minute play, Seven Jewish Children, is the most controversial of the Court's current trio. Some will say it's too soon to write about the invasion of Gaza; others will dismiss the play as propaganda. Both charges are easily refuted. If theatre fails to react rapidly to current events, whether it be the Middle East crisis or the global financial meltdown, it will be reduced to the role of an impotent bystander. What theatre can also do is delve behind the headlines. We've all been shocked by TV footage of the Israeli assault on Gaza. But Churchill's play reminds us that, in any conflict, children are always prime victims. Literally so in the case of Gaza, where 410 died during the 23-day bombing. But Churchill also shows us how Jewish children are bred to believe in the "otherness" of Palestinians and how, for generations to come, they stand to reap the bitter harvest of the military assault on Hamas.

Churchill's play pricks our conscience. Alia Bano's Shades, which plays at the Theatre Upstairs and has got scandalously scant coverage in the national press, is equally remarkable. It grew out of the Court's Unheard Voices programme, which last year brought together a group of young Muslim writers. Bano, as an English graduate and A-level teacher, was already well on the way, and what she has done in Shades is chart the experiences of a young woman torn between the party-fuelled London scene and love for someone who is a devout Muslim. You could call it a romcom with attitude. Bano gets behind the lazy media stereotyping of British Muslims and shows how they exist in the workaday world, here as accountants and events organisers, and fall in and out of love like anyone else....

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