For a Palestinian

Bilal Hasna & Aaron Kilercioglu
WoLab
Camden People's Theatre

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Bilal Hasna in For A Palestinian Credit: Alessandra Davison
Bilal Hasna in For A Palestinian Credit: Alessandra Davison
Bilal Hasna in For A Palestinian Credit: Alessandra Davison

This virtual monologue, passionately performed by co-dramatist Bilal Hasna, was inspired by Australian-born painter Janet Venn Brown’s book of the same name, For a Palestinian, which celebrated the life of her partner the Palestinian poet, translator and activist Wa’el Zuaiter who was assassinated in Rome in 1972 by agents of Mossad, Israel’s secret service.

The play is a double love story. It is both a retelling of Zuaiter’s life and his love for Janet and an attempt to share Hasna’s powerful feeling of love for the land that he comes from. That is where he begins: with his own story.

It starts with an invitation to a family wedding in Jerusalem in 2018. This will be his first trip to Palestine since he was 12 in 2011. Now, already at university, he decides to investigate his heritage and that’s when he discovers Zuaiter. Soon he is tracing the poet’s life from the moment he encounters Janet and her work in a Rome gallery.

The two stories run in parallel with Hasna playing both himself and Zuaiter and many of the other characters in both their lives.

Zuaiter seems happy in Rome with his bohemian friends until, in 1967, with tensions in the Middle East turning to war, he decides to return to Palestine. The conflict is over before he gets there, but he comes back changed and is instrumental in forming the Italian Committee in Support of the Palestinian People.

While acknowledging the suffering of Jews, Zuaiter reminds us that you can’t replace one suffering with another; that doesn’t solve the problem—and of how Israel was formed through the emptying of 600 villages and ethnic displacement of 750,000 Palestinians. Support for Palestine grows internationally, but then come the terrorist attacks at Lodd and the Munich Olympics and it begins to melt away. In the West, the Palestinians are called murderers and the Israelis respond with violence.

Interwoven with this is Hasna’s own return to Palestine along with voice-over news items and verbatim quotes from his other father and others. When Hasna arrives in Tel Aviv, border control take his passport and hold things up for an hour but only ask for his address, phone number and e-mail. The family then drive to Ramallah to stay with their aunties. The wedding in Jerusalem is a splendid celebration but the aunties have to miss it. They get turned back by the Israelis; they don’t have British passports.

Hasna’s father came to Britain aged 17. He says Britain has been good to him. Britain has shaped him. Sometimes he is more British than Arab. But Hasna doesn’t let Britain off, there’s also a forceful reminder of Britain’s colonial actions, how they let weapons fall into the hands of terrorist groups in 1948 and of funds sent to Israel.

Hasna and Kilercioglu’s script skilfully interweaves politics, the two personal stories and the many voices. Jida Akil’s design never detracts from the actor: a noticeboard, a flag with simple strings of orange slices and an orange chair a reminder of the Jaffas of the Palestinian homeland. Holly Khan’s sound design, though sometimes over loud, provides a complex montage of music and voices.

At the heart of it all is a sustained performance from Bilal Hasna. Perhaps as director, co-writer Aaron Kilerciogluis remembered the description of Zuaiter as “never able to stay still,” but he has encouraged a rather jerky performance that is also occasionally too quiet and then too loud.

As well as adopting a range of accents, English, Arab, Australian, southern Italian and Roman, and matching gender, Hasna marks changes of character with a stamped foot and/or a sudden reversal of body stance. These repetitive actions become disruptive, especially when the text is delivered with such rapidity, with energy discharged in all directions and inevitable loss of clarity. Some lines come out ready-made with no time for thought behind them, but when Hasna slows down and makes contact with the audience, he wins them over. This is a performance that can mature from an actor who can be very engaging, whether making a political point or dancing exuberantly.

For a Palestinian follows this CPT run with performances at Bristol Old Vic 13–15 October.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton