The Fever Chart

Naomi Wallace
Pilot Theatre and York Theatre Royal
York Theatre Royal and touring
(2009)

Pilot Theatre's latest production is the UK première of Naomi Wallace's trio of "Visions of the Middle East", which were written for various separate commissions over a period stretching back to 2003. It is a powerful and accessible glimpse into three separate post-war scenarios, each exploring different characters set against the backdrop of the conflicts in different Middle-Eastern regions: Rafah in the Gaza strip, Jerusalem, and Baghdad.

There are weighty issues at play when a Western writer (and company) attempts to address conflicts which stretch back so far and are so rooted in what is, to many, a distant and inaccessible culture. But rather than moralising, Wallace has used these situations as background to the simmering personal tensions and dilemmas presented by the different short plays on offer here. The direction, by Katie Posner and Marcus Romer, deals sensitively - although at times possibly too earnestly - with the closely observed human situations presented by the writer.

In the first "vision", A State of Innocence, a young Israeli soldier futilely tending a run-down zoo in Rafah is addressed by a grieving Palestinian mother in a confrontational duologue which is interrupted by the wilder figure of eccentric architect Shlomo. As the audience orientates itself around the thinly-papered antipathies at play, we start to glimpse touches of the poetry of Wallace's language. The writer has a joy in playing with words and there is a rhythmic power to the text which the actors gracefully master. Lisa Came's mother figure wryly declares herself not a terrorist but a "Terrestinian", who commits "terrible acts of Palestinianism". Daniel Rabin (who also gets the best lines as the poetry-obsessed lighter character in the second "vision", Between this Breath and You) shows particular strength in his delivery of Wallace's taut lyricism.

Like the direction, the design (by Catherine Chapman) and lighting (by Matt Savage) is powerful and simple, accentuating the darkness and the fractures which surround these characters. Perhaps this stillness, this gravity prevents the production really soaring on the wings of Wallace's words, and moving quite as deftly as it should between moments of utmost seriousness and the light humanity which Wallace has found in each of the scenarios.

In the second "vision", Came's trainee nurse, an Israeli who speaks fluent (American) English, is confronted with an intriguing and richly symbolic dilemma by the appearance at her clinic of an older Palestinian man (Raad Rawi). There is a finely tuned balance set up by the writer here, between unknowable intimacy and unbearable animosity. This sense of each individual's life being in thrall to the other - the delicate see-sawing of dependence set up by the playwright - is at times slightly awkwardly handled in this production; but these shifts are also, at other moments, exactly and grippingly right.

In the final piece, a monologue entitled The Retreating World, the production more adeptly handles the shifts between light and dark, with a bibliophile pigeon fancier from Baghdad personably portrayed by Rabin. Rabin is the most engaging of the (strong) trio of actors, doing his best to sell the humour of the piece in an atmosphere which feels slightly resistant to his attempts. Perhaps there is a difficulty for a Western audience in feeling completely liberated to laugh, given the gravity of the real-world situations forming the backdrop to The Fever Chart; perhaps this production does not fully give licence to do so. But it is an undeniably powerful production nonetheless, and the unshowy direction and the simplicity and directness of the performances prove compelling.

At York until 14th November, then Lincoln Performing Arts Centre and Lakeside, Nottingham. Also touring in 2010 to Exeter Northcott, Theatre at the Mill in County Antrim and Trafalgar Studios, London.

Mark Smith