The Beloved at The Bush Theatre is a reinterpretation by the Palestinian ShiberHur theatre company of the biblical story of Abraham, who believed God asked him to kill his own son Isaac to prove his obedience.
It is written and directed by Amir Nizar Zuabi with a poetic, haunting quality that mixes brutal realism with magic realism in the form of talking sheep who act as kind of Greek chorus as well as being part of the action because the Wise Ram (Taher Najib) caused the distraction that saves the boy.
The play focuses on the impacts the near human sacrifice has not only on the family of Abraham (played passionately by Palestinian-Israel actor Makram J Khoury ) but in continuing conflict across generations between the three Abrahamic religions that have this story as their common starting point.
The central theme is blood and death alongside the inevitability of birth and renewal, with the play ends in a dramatic depiction of a possible future rebirth "so the world will be good".
The cast are a mix of Palestinians and Israelis, which adds poignancy to the play as it is essentially about the tragic situation between these members of the Abrahamic family, with the magic realism allowing for a time span from biblical times to the current day.
The mix of reality and myth is captured when Wise Ram observes that wool has been replaced with nylon and the clouds by drones.
However, the Israel-Palestine conflict is not addressed directly, with the complexity of the intertwining of the two peoples never oversimplified. The politics of the situation is addressed through a belief in the power of stories. That could be seen as a missed opportunity as the life of Palestinians is rarely depicted on the stage in the UK and the symbolism is often ambiguous. However, it has a strong emotional power and gives much to think about in ways that move beyond the usual polarisations.
Abraham is the only character in the play given a name. The others are called Mother (Rivka Neumann), Young Son (Jonatan Bukshpan), older Son (Rami Heuberger), Wife (Sivan Sasson), Young Lamb (Samaa Wakeem) and Wise Ram.
This seems to reinforce the mythical aim of Zuabi’s story telling as the characters can represent both their biblical equivalents and more universal representations – Jewish, Palestinian and everyone else at different times.
When the father and son come home from the mountain at the start of the play, Young Son is naturally traumatised and mother terrified (an elder son had been taken into the army after a previous trip to the mountain, and has been killed in battle). Mother and Young Son run away but they can’t escape the march of destiny.
The traumatised boy grows into a disturbed man who works at killing sheep, hoping that will purge the memory of the night on the mountain but the sheep still haunt him. In spite of his attempts to prevent his own wife from having children because he doesn’t want them born into the world he found himself in, he feels he was born in blood and lives in blood and violence.
The play’s grim realities are lifted by the magic realism of the sheep, with an illuminated fleece hovering above the stage at all times. Wise Ram and Young Lamb provide a commentary on what’s happening in the play, interspersed with sharp and witty observations on the human/ovine condition and their interdependence.
As they can see backwards and forwards, they can also discuss the wider world with references to the war, the border and the awfulness of a son dying in the war. Sometimes they’re sad, sometimes they’re funny but they always have a political and often optimistic edge as they are the keepers of dreams which keep balance in the world.
The monologues which are spoken by the sheep and the people are quite beautiful. I’d recommend getting a copy of the play so you can read them as poetry.
The direction is sharp, with a simple but atmospheric set and haunting well judged music. The whole cast bring great energy and skill to parts which at times become almost unbearable to watch because they are so emotionally charged.
The Beloved is at The Bush Theatre until June 9. Book tickets online or call the box office on 020 8743 5050.
May 30, 2012