Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied Tunisia

Josh Azouz
Almeida Theatre
Almeida Theatre

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Pierro Niel-Mee as Victor and Adrian Edmonson as Grandma Credit: Marc Brenner
Laura Habba as Faiza, Ethan Kai as Youssef, Yasmin Paige as Loys and Pierro Niel-Mee as Victor Credit: Marc Brenner
Adrian Edmondson as Grandma and Yasmin Paige as Loys Credit: Marc Brenner

A man is buried up to his neck under the hot sun and the guy he thought was his best friend is peeing in his face. This is Tunisia in 1943, four months into the German occupation. Victor (Pierro Niel-Mee) is a Jew and standing over him is Youssef (Ethan Kai), an Arab obeying orders from the Nazis for whom he now works as a chef.

That is the striking beginning of Josh Azouz’s intriguing but baffling new play. You could call it black comedy. I didn’t find much to laugh at though it is darkly absurdist. Max Johns’s setting, a landscape of plywood boxes, seems a signal not to take it too literally and, though Victor and Youssef and their wives Loys (Yasmin Paige) and Faiza (Laura Hanna) are played naturalistically, you can’t help seeing them as symbols.

The Nazis are represented by a German CO answering to the nickname Grandma, bestowed on him by his troops because he knits in the evenings. Adrian Edmondson gives a splendid performance mixing a fake bonhomie with an underlying menace. He may order eye-gouging but when, having forced Victor’s wife’s address from Youssef, he makes himself an unwelcome guest there, you can almost believe that all he wants is a cosy domestic evening and perhaps it gets Victor released from his torture. The outcome ramps up the drama.

Though the setting is very specific (the Nazis held Tunisia for only six months), the language seems modern, the costume not particularly '40s and its themes have a very contemporary resonance.

Violence and torture are still with us. We see Arab-Jewish relations in the behaviour of these friends, loyalty and possible betrayal as well as marital infidelity. Loys speaks of Jews settling as “guests” in successive new lands until forced to flee again; as they plan escape to Palestine, how are Jews settling there so different from the French colonising Tunisia?

Grandma doesn’t think much of his troops: "any Nazi with prospects is in Europe,” he says, “they only send animals to Africa." Loys and Victor used to feel safe: only poor Jews were in danger. Who is judging whom here? How do we define who we are and how does that affect our behaviour?

Azouz is stirring up many things but his presentation lacks clarity. That is probably intentional, but rather than think about its serious issues he leaves me wondering what a handful of extra ice cream cones was meant to mean.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton