Performance

A Palestinian Play’s Gutting Portrayal of Fighters Besieged in the Church of the Nativity

The story of a 39-day siege at the church traditionally said to mark the birthplace of Jesus Christ casts human emotions into stark relief amid almost unimaginable circumstances.

Faisal Abualhayjaa and Hassan Taha in the Freedom Theatre’s The Siege, October 12 -22 at NYU Skirball (photo by Ian Douglas)

Most of the discussion around The Siege, a play created by Nabil Al-Raee and Zoe Lafferty that made its American debut in a production by Palestine’s Freedom Theatre last month, has been vituperation about the play’s indifference towards balanced perspectives. This has detracted from serious critical discussion of its formal merits, which is a shame, because The Freedom Theatre has a wildly ambitious goal: to reveal in one 90-minute act what it is like to survive a siege, and to explain a reality that most Americans can’t comprehend.

The actual events behind The Siege are too implausible to be fiction. During the Second Intifada in 2002, a group of poorly equipped Palestinian combatants found refuge in one the holiest sites in the world: the Church of the Nativity, traditionally considered the birthplace of Jesus. Israeli forces, unwilling to destroy the holy site, besieged it instead. The combatants survived for 39 days, not by dint of their numbers, but because they entered a building no one was willing destroy.

To show what it was like to be trapped in a church surrounded by snipers and tanks, the play rapidly swings between machismo and tenderness. This emotional compression creates a sense of claustrophobia that mimics the reality of the siege. The combatants were surrounded by bodies they could not safely retrieve, with no food, little information, and no sense of how long the siege would last.

Faisal Abualhayjaa, Motaz Malhees, Alaa Abu Gharbieh, and Hassan Taha (lying down) in the Freedom Theatre’s
The Siege, October 12 -22, 2017 at NYU Skirball (photo by Ian Douglas)

In one poignant scene, when a man on night-watch tells his companions that three fighters vanished during the night, the fighters cycle through emotions like a deck of cards. They react with suspicion that he is a spy; anger toward the missing men; bitterness that the watchman aroused their suspicion by refusing to admit that he had simply fallen asleep. Their anger reveals a surprising tenderness.

When the Israeli army brings a combatant’s mother to the perimeter of the church to order her son to surrender, she (apparently taking advantage of the fact that the soldiers don’t know Arabic), yells that she will disown him if he surrenders. After she leaves, he attempts to fight through his friends on a suicidal mission and is restrained. To calm him, a soldier makes him an imaginary cup of coffee, long after the food has run out. Remembering his manners, he offers a Marlboro to go with the coffee. “I know its American, but what can I do?” he asks. In the span of a beat, macho swagger meets vulnerability.

The emotional claustrophobia is made more jarring by the openness of the set. The church is evoked by a single wall with an arch jutting off of it. Despite their simplicity the sandstone and blue walls, and the lanterns hanging from chains create a sense of ancient resplendence. The wall and arch, set at the center of the stage, open outward toward the auditorium, which forms the rest of the church.

Rather than using actors to show Israeli fighters, historical footage is projected on the church wall. The wall has an arch engraved into it that looks like a rifle’s sight. Everything projected on the wall becomes a target, with the images of the church projected on the inside wall emphasizing how vulnerable the space is. It is an ancient building, with arches rather than doors. The precise sound engineering reminds the audience of this openness. The sound of helicopters flying over the church begins at the back of the auditorium and hovers over the audience rather than the stage. Only once the audience is brought into the play does the stage feel dangerously open.

Rabee Hanini in the Freedom Theatre’s The Siege, October 12 -22, 2017 at NYU Skirball (photo courtesy the Freedom Theatre)

Yet for all the emotional compression, the audience doesn’t suffer whiplash.  A handful of interludes provide respite. A modern-day tour guide opens the play, giving the audience a history of the church. What feels like a gag at the beginning of the play turns into a smart device that lets air back into the theater. Three sets of interviews with the fighters before, during, and after the siege function similarly.

Anyone hoping for more context will be disappointed. The playbill provides a list of suggested reading, along with a detailed chronology of the event. But anyone who is hoping for an answer to the question that history books rarely answer — tell me, what was it like? — will be more than satisfied.

The Freedom Theatre performed The Siege October 12-22 at NYU’S Skirball Center. More details here

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