With the new production Unto the Breach, Al Zaytouna Dance Theatre has surely succeeded in its mission of raising awareness of the Palestinian cause. It at least worked for me, as during the break I felt the urge to quickly connect to the Internet and refresh my knowledge of the Gaza strip (and most probably, I was not the only one). The group, formed 2005 by volunteers with the intent to promote Palestinian culture, presented a clever adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V to the Palestinian–Israeli struggle: a bittersweet rendition of the news in the form of a Middle Eastern tale.

© Al Zaytouna
© Al Zaytouna

Greeted by a fog that envelops stage and audience space alike, we are witness to a stylised depiction of life in Palestinian camps. The stage is covered by stacks of debris in what looks less like a slum and more like wreckage. In the middle of it, the Palestinians hold their few, broken belongings: a broken doll, some books, an orange. Together with us, a young Chairman (Ahmed Najar as Yasser Arafat) is watching, very much moved by his own people’s misery and frustrations. Similarly to Henry V, he decides to go in disguise and observe the daily struggles of their simple lives.

Despite the engagement of the Palestinians, everything is far from normality: electricity that comes and goes, and the constant fear of impending danger from the air. The situation escalates after the killing of a young girl – apparently a terrorist trying to break through the Separation Wall – by the Israeli army, bringing the Palestinians to the verge of insurrection. Luckily, the Chairman manages to unite rival groupings into a single resistance force; this is the start of the Intifada. As the rebellion rages, the Israeli government is forced to come to an agreement and international interlocutors are called to set the details. The whole world witnesses the event, and peace seems at last to have triumphed. But the break is brief and soon the situation worsens, with a second revolution impending. The Chairman, busy with diplomatic missions, is no longer connected to his people. Too old to intervene, he can only witness in despair and frustration this new and disorganised rebellion. As the show ends, there is a bitter taste in our mouths as reality hits on our needs for Hollywood endings. Still, we leave with hope – hope in the future of the Palestinians.

Al Zaytouna’s second mission is the promotion of Dabke dancing, and the group works to integrate the style typical of the Middle East, characterised by line dancing and rhythmical stomping and jumping, with modern dance. In this show the mix is particularly well achieved and the Dabke vocabulary extended by modern dance movements acquires a forceful expressive plasticity. In this sense, the dance scene depicting the Intifada is particuarly memorable. In it, the typical fluttering of the handkerchief used during wedding dances is transformed in the movement of the slings of the rebels throwing stones. Alongside the dances there are also several intense dramatic moments – for example, the young wife trying to sew with intermittent light; the girl’s solemn funeral; and, towards the end of the piece, Najar’s old and trembling, ill Arafat.

Also notable is Claire Quinn’s wonderful rendition of the figure of the chorus in Shakespeare’s Henry V. Her powerful interpretation of the role, somewhere between narrator and character, helped the audience with the narration and conferred to the whole piece a gravity that could have easily been lost (it has to be said that Al Zaytouna’s members come from different backgrounds and are not all full-time performers). The serious tone was counterbalanced by the joyfulness characteristic of the Dabke dancing which (to my and the rest of the audience’s surprise) requires active audience participation. As we could not join in the dancing, we were required by the dancers to clap, in an interesting mix between folkloristic show and the silent convention of the fourth wall. A little disturbing were the uneven level of the music, with some songs louder than others for no apparent reason, and the lighting, which was at times too bright.

In general the show manages to give depth to images we have seen a thousand times on television. The new perspective is given by the recovery of the emotional dimension. These images are put into a broader visual context that allows us, the audience, to reclaim feelings and intensity: to experience the frustration, the rage and the hope of the Palestinians and Israelis as one. The audience’s strong reaction at the end of the piece was fitting, as they undoubtedly felt a passionate desire to “protest, write, speak, dance ... stay”. There is a tiger – passion – that is only resting between the jasmine and olive trees in Gaza.