Semites

Ben Nathan
The Bunker Theatre

Lara Sawalha and Ben Nathan Credit: Mark Senior
Ben Nathan Credit: Mark Senior
Lara Sawalha Credit: Mark Senior

Can there be peace in Palestine / Israel?

It’s a hope Ben Nathan’s play Semites expresses in a show that includes extracts from interviews with people on different sides in the conflict.

Just how hard it might be to achieve is glimpsed in a swiftly delivered scene in which two characters bitterly trade accusations about the other “community”.

One says Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, is a holocaust denier, another claims “they get away with anything because of the holocaust.”

It doesn’t look any better when the two actors quickly namecheck key events from the history of the area.

But, as they point out through an audience poll, many of us manage to live peacefully alongside people we don’t know and people we do know but disagree with.

They ask how many of us know ten or more neighbours by name, (very few was our answer) have ten friends who voted differently from us, (a few) share the same views as most of the people we come in contact with (quite a few).

Highlighting the absurdity of walls and borders, two unnamed characters in a sketch set in the north of England express contrasting views of the consequences of erecting such a divide nearby.

The show gives us many voices and what you can catch of them before the next voice arrives suggests a balanced sensitivity to different sides in the conflict.

The audience are continuously encouraged to be part of the performance. As we arrive, we are asked to loan our shoes which are lined up along the sides of the performance space and occasionally taken out to represent one of the voices.

When Lara Sawalha speaks as a conservative Israeli, Ben suggests we each raise a card showing the green side if we agree with what she says and the red side if we disagree. It revealed an audience consistently divided with many of us showing the red card most of the time, while quite a number almost always showed the opposite colour to our own.

Occasionally a story we hear sticks. An Israeli soldier tells us of his sadness when, after chasing a Palestinian boy who had been involved in a protest disturbance, he sees the boy being beaten as punishment by the boy’s father.

A Palestinian (Ben Nathan) describes a moment of human connection when he expresses concern for a harsh Israeli guard at a border crossing.

But generally, we hear too little of the interviewees, their voices appear as remote fragments. And, despite its humanity, the show does not give us any clear picture or perspective on the conflict such as we get for instance in David Hare’s Via Dolorosa.

The play yearns for more tolerance and peace but shies away from suggesting how that can be achieved. And that, I suspect, might not be enough for many of the audience.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna