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Palestinian voices at Adelaide Festival: ‘Azza’ and ‘Taha’ theatre reviews

Azzawritten and directed by Amir Nizar Zuabi, ShiberHur Theatre Company, Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre until March 18.

4.5 STARS

The azza is the Palestinian mourning ceremony but, in the ShiberHur Theatre Company’s excellent production, it is very far from doleful. Invigorated by Amir Nizar Zuabi’s warm, well-judged text, azza is, as funeral organisers like to say, a celebration of life.

Azza is a gathering of men. It consists of prayers, singing, reminiscence, tears and fond laughter. The mourners rise to greet newcomers, it is a constant cycle of comfort and affirmation. Directed by the writer, this production deftly captures both the ritual and spontaneity of the event – and the bursts of volatility.

“My father died yesterday”, the chief mourner, (Amer Hlehel) his dutiful stay-at-home son announces. A wave of God-have-mercy prayers and chants follow and all six performers touch their hearts, as they will do many times over the hour. They are seated on white stackable plastic chairs that are fluidly arranged and re-arranged giving a constant visual rhythm to the proceedings.

An azza itself is a meditation on our own mortality.

But the real energy comes from the vibrancy of the storytelling as anecdotes are shared about one man’s life. His attempt at courtship of his young wife is turned into farce when he is chased into a river by her brothers’ dogs and he is forced to run naked and muddy through the village. At the age of seven he is walking a donkey which escapes his grasp and, in a moment of Munchausen re-telling, the story becomes a tall one as the donkey somehow launches itself from a terrace into the top of a tree. The narrative then shifts sharply and grimly as the previously hilarious attempts to dislodge the poor animal go (to coin a phrase) horribly wrong.

We get an accumulating portrait of the deceased as a feckless, somewhat delusional man whose father sends him to Italy to study medicine only to fail seven years in a row because he hasn’t learnt Italian. His exploits in the construction business wildly fluctuate. On one occasion he proudly returns to his village in a Cadillac Eldorado, in the next breath he is declared bankrupt.

Two threads run through this excellent piece. One is the death figure (intriguingly played by Khalifa Natour) who at intervals beckons the mourners to follow him into the underground, a reminder to all present that an azza itself is a meditation on our own mortality.

The other is the unresolved enmity between two brothers. One, who stayed and helped a turbulent, difficult father run the family business, and then supported him in decline and death. The other, who sought success and wealth in another country and returns, too late, and is resented for his freedom from duty.

Amer Hlehel is excellent as the constant son. Like an exasperated Uncle Vanya, he is comically unreasonable, self-pitying and justified, all at the same time. His anger roils over the four days of the azza and the eruption with his worldly sibling (Henry Andrawes) is yet another facet of this portrait of a family that rings universally true. Azza is an ensemble success, memorably rich in detail and in its understated way, unexpectedly consoling.

Taha, written and performed by Amer Hlehel, Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, until March 18

FIVE STARS

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Taha is in every way a companion piece to Azza. This exuberant monologue about the extraordinary life of the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali, is also expertly directed by Amir Nizar Zuabi, and features Amer Hlehel as both actor and writer.

Taha’s story is that of the displacement and continuing suffering of Palestine. Born in 1931 he fled to Lebanon in 1948 when his village was heavily bombed during the Arab-Israeli war. Unlike many who stayed in camps in Lebanon (including his beloved fiancé Amira) Taha, at his father’s insistence, returns to his homeland, to Nazareth, where he lived until his death in 2011.

Amer Hlehel’s play fully encompasses the geopolitics of his country, but the central theme is one of resilience and unshakable optimism. There is a sensuous joy in his larger-than-life character. As in Azza, the writing is sometimes fabulist, it is shaping a legend. But the particulars are familiar, everyday details. Taha is a true poet. Tastes, smells, sounds envelope him like blessings. Every moment is savoured, every obstacle and grief is countenanced and somehow overcome.

We are powerfully introduced voices and experiences of a world that is too often reduced to headlines and generalisations.

Taha’s story is filled with portents and providential surprise. I shouldn’t be alive, he says, as he recounts his parents’ desolation at the number of infant brothers, all named Taha, who died before he was born. He was the lucky fourth (or maybe fifth, I lost count).

And while Taha became a significant and much-loved poet in his country, from the age of six or seven onwards he was actually a merchant. First, selling eggs in the nearby city of Haifa (his first glimpse of the glories of the larger world), then setting up shops and expanding them. Even when he loses everything when forced to flee his village to the refugee camp, he enterprisingly makes a living for himself – and far more importantly, his family, since his disabled father cannot earn enough.

The story of his lost sheep, later returned by an honest shepherd, is one of many in this captivating play which resemble parables. Certainly it conjures a world of kindness and possibility, even in extreme duress.

Anchored by his own excellent text, Amer Hlehel is splendid as Taha. He is funny, earnest, perceptive and irrepressible.

In the closing highlight to the performance, Taha, finally a recognised poet at the age of 52, reads his famous poem Revenge. It is remarkable. Experience it yourself : the poet himself reads it on YouTube.

Amer Hlehel has powerfully introduced to us, as has the ShiberHur Theatre Company, voices and experiences of a world that is too often reduced to headlines and generalisations.

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