Shylock, the Middle-East peacemaker
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”