Shy­lock, the Mid­dle-East peace­maker

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts&entertainment - john nathan

Is hard to think of a metaphor that more pow­er­fully il­lus­trates that Jew and arab are di­vided by a com­mon his­tory than the one of­fered by this one­man play.

Writ­ten by Moroc­can-born dutch writer ab­delka­der Be­nali, its hero is a young Pales­tinian ac­tor called Yasser, a name that for gen­er­a­tions will be syn­ony­mous with the fight for free­dom on one side of the Mid­dle East con­flict, and ter­ror­ism on the other.

this would have been even more true when Be­nali was writ­ing this work in 2001. arafat was then a fig­ure fad­ing in both in­flu­ence and health (he died in 2004). But for his name­sake in the play he is an iconic sym­bol of the Pales­tinian strug­gle. Which makes it all the more re­mark­able that dur­ing this un­in­ter­rupted 120 minute mono­logue, young Yasser changes clothes and char­ac­ter — swap­ping the jeans and kef­fiyeh worn by many a young arab, to the suit and kip­pah of shy­lock.

We first en­counter Yasser (William ElGardi) as he stum­bles, flus­tered and ag­i­tated, into the the­atre’s chang­ing room in which all the action takes place. It has two mir­rors bor­dered by bulbs, one for Yasser and the other for his un­seen fel­low ac­tor, Lucy, with whom Yasser is in love. (Lucy, we dis­cover, plays Por­tia, the heroine in The Mer­chant of Venice — a char­ac­ter who play­wright Wolf Mankowitz once de­scribed as a “cold, snobby lit­tle bitch”.)

Yasser ex­plains the rea­son for his ag­i­tated state — a gang of mug­gers has just stolen his suit­case full of props, the most im­por­tant of which is his nose. No nose, no shy­lock; no shy­lock, no show. What is a Pales­tinian ac­tor to do?

Yasser’s dilemma only rings partly true. If there is one prop that most mod­ern pro­duc­tions of The Mer­chant of Venice are wary of us­ing, it is a nose. here, its pres­ence, or rather con­spic­u­ous ab­sence, sad­dles Be­nali’s play and te­unkie van der sluijs’s well-paced pro­duc­tion with two nag­ging doubts.

the first is that un­less a long, Jewish nose is iron­i­cally de­ployed — not that I have ever seen one de­ployed iron­i­cally — most direc­tors would see it as tip­ping their pro­duc­tion into a coarse an­tisemitism. In fact, many would ar­gue that stag­ing The Mer­chant in the first place is to tol­er­ate a more sub­tle kind of an­ti­semtism, though let us not here re­vive an ar­gu­ment that is more stale than last Fri­day’s chal­lah.

the other doubt is that Yasser’s ob­ses­sion with arafat feels some­what ir­rel­e­vant in an era when the most vis­i­ble Pales­tinian body, at least from out­side the West Bank and Gaza, is not the PLO but ha­mas.

But nei­ther of th­ese dis­trac­tions are fa­tal to the play. and when Yasser com­pares the length and shape of shy­lock’s long and noble snoze to that of arafat’s, it be­comes clear that it is not meant as a sym­bol of an­tisemitism, but as a (pun in­tended) bridge be­tween two peo­ples.

Yasser de­clares: “You won’t find an English­man able to play shy­lock, and you won’t find a Jew will­ing to play shy­lock.” he is wrong, of course. But the point he is at­tempt­ing to il­lus­trate — that no English­man can fully un­der­stand the out­cast, and that Jews find the role of­fen­sive — is broadly right.

Yasser re­veals him­self to be a like­able chap, but tor­mented by mem­o­ries of his fa­ther who yearned to be an ac­tor but died on an Is­raeli build­ing site; of his child­hood when, as a boy, he mim­icked not just arafat but Yitzhak rabin while his friends chose other Mid­dle East leaders to im­per­son­ate; and of his mother’s dis­gust at her ac­tor son want­ing to play a Jew.

an im­pres­sive El-Gardi trans­mits Yasser’s con­flicts of loy­alty — to his mother, to his fa­ther, to his peo­ple and to his art — with an un­hinged en­ergy that falls just short of mad­ness.

Yasser even har­bours a shy-lock-like yearn­ing for dig­nity that man­i­fests it­self in a, pos­si­bly self-mock­ing, the­ory that the Bard was a Pales­tinian called “sheikh speare”. and you leave con­vinced that this Pales­tinian un­der­stands the con­di­tion of shy­lock as well as any Jew. ( Tel: 020 7503 1646)

William El-Gardi as Pales­tinian ac­tor Yasser, who be­lieves Shake­speare was an Arab called “Sheikh Speare”

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