The Arab-Israeli Cookbook

Robin Soans
Gate Theatre
(2004)

The Arab-Israeli Cookbook advertising image

"I pray for peace".

The final line of The Arab-Israeli Cookbook poignantly sums up playwright Robin Soans' attitude to the Intifada (or civil war) in Israel.

In a brief interview, the playwright explained to British Theatre Guide that every word heard during the two-and-a-half hours of his new play was actually spoken by Israelis. Their testimonies are shocking and their endurance amazing.

Soans, together with a group of colleagues from The Caird Company, spent three-weeks immersing themselves in the culture and politics of the country. This is the technique that he had developed with Out of Joint director Max Stafford Clark when writing A State Affair about prostitution in the North of England.

Following his trip, he has put together a collage created from the interviews and building to an impressively detailed overview of Israeli attitudes towards the end of 2003. The ensemble cast of eight actors play a couple of dozen parts between them ranging from the banal to the inspirational.

So many are sure to prove unforgettable, such as Yaakov (Keith Bartlett) a Jewish bus driver on Route 25 who watched a colleague's bus explode. It says much about life in Israel today that the interviewees between them talk of no fewer than six separate suicide bombings.

The dedication to the country on all sides is notable. Whether it is the loud American immigrant, Rena (Amanda Boxer), the Greek Orthodox Idan (Daniel Pirrie) or a group of camp Arabs surrounding Fattiyah (Abigail Thaw), the mother of a martyr and watching the death of her son on television, they love their country. The real problem is that the country that they all love, is perceived differently by almost every one living there.

The mixture of comedy, as typified by a camp, bickering gay couple, and terrifying drama sums up Israel today.

As a separate metaphor, Soans introduces cookery lessons for his audience. Whenever possible, he has asked his interviewees to talk about the food that sums up their lives. There is an element of social history involved in this too. Fifty years ago, the Jews scrabbled around to put together a meal and the Arabs feasted. Now the positions have reversed.

We see Nadia (Sheila Hancock) lovingly preparing a dish with an unpronounceable name from scratch. Coring, stuffing and cooking this dish is part of her life and her explanation would be worthy of a celebrity chef on television.

We also see, temptingly smell or hear about a wide variety of dishes including gefilte fish, a Thai stir fry, the best hummus in the world and one that everybody will be quoting, goats' testicles with chilli peppers.

Despite the cooking and the occasional flippancies, this is a deeply serious work that gets to the heart of the experience of living in Israel today. It may sound easy to visit a country for three weeks, get some quotes and ask a superb ensemble of actors to deliver them. The art is in turning this into a play and maintaining political balance.

It is likely that Jews will regard The Arab-Israeli Cookbook as biased towards the Arabs, Arabs towards the Jews and Christians will feel left out. Surely, that is a microcosm of the country and as such is proof of the success of the playwright.

The Arab-Israeli Cookbook sounds unusual and is. It seeps into the consciousness of the viewer and subtly makes them understand all sides of the argument. Like the meals that are cooked and described, it will leave its audience (give or take a few, not very well-served, vegetarians) satisfied. It might even make a contribution towards the peace that almost all Israelis pray for.

For those that are interested, tickets are selling fast but there is always a consolation prize. The company has put together The Arab-Israeli Cookbook on sale at £9.99.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher