Invasion!

Jonas Hassen Khemiri, translated by Frank Perry
Soho Theatre
(2009)

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It is impossible to do anything completely fresh in theatre but Jonas Hassen Khemiri tries hard to confound expectations.

His first big surprise still works really well, even if it has been tried occasionally over the years, certainly in Knight of the Burning Pestle. Without giving the game away, one can suggest that his opening salvo first shocked and then delighted many unsuspecting audience members.

The popular young Swedish-Tunisian novelist turned playwright then spent the succeeding 75 minutes exploring themes as obliquely and obscurely as possible.

As with Anne in Martin Crimp's Attempts on Her Life, Khemiri's Abul Khassem proves to be a shapeshifting Everyman. He/she is usually Arabic but appears in different eras and countries, taking on guises but ultimately being the play's Black Hole into which meaning frequently disappeared.

Such an approach, with short, barely connected scenes presents great challenges to director Lucy Kerbel and her quartet of actors. Each of Gregg Chillin, Chris Nayak, Raad Rawi and Viss Elliott Safavi gets their share of the limelight and all acquit themselves well on takis' disintegrating set, which symbolises the dysfunctional nature of the drama.

Amongst other scenes, those which stick in the memory include a couple of "bloods" disrupting a civilised evening, a debate amongst pretentious folk, the problems of a theatre studies lecturer with a bad memory and most particularly, the difficulties suffered by an Arabic asylum seeker with a dodgy past.

The loose connecting theme is the Arab plight and the terrorists that it has spawned. More by osmosis than direct speeches, our writer promotes their cause and engenders understanding for the plight of exiles involved in a war that can seem almost as hard to pin down as his play.

Another strand that develops through the evening is the use and misuse of language, culminating in a quite shocking and chastening scene in which an old man spouts rubbish first in Arabic and then Abba songs. His interpreter, rather than doing the obvious, spouts a paean of anti-Semitic hatred. So powerful was the effect that the next time that a foreigner is interpreted on TV, this viewer will stop and wonder!

Invasion! is an iconoclastic work that manages to combine moments of tedious incomprehension with others of fascinating insight. It is like no other play currently on view in London and as such will instantly either intrigue or repel depending upon your taste.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher