In Spitting Distance @ Barbican, London


Khalifa Natour

directed by
Ofira Henig
In this one man show a Palestinian actor with an Israeli passport suffers ordeal after ordeal when trying to return to Tel Aviv from Paris on 11 September 2002.

It starts, however, with an exposition on spitting. This is a habit that both Palestinians and Israelis display frequently in the protagonists hometown of Ramallah. On the face of it, this speech is amusing, but it reveals how young people on both sides have devised this outlet for their rage. As the protagonist played by Khalifa Natour explains, the Oslo Agreement supposedly freed the Palestinians in Ramallah. But what use is it when no-one feels free? Spitting has become a psychological tool for exercising freedom, encapsulating both defiance and resolve, in the absence of true aggression.

The play then tells of Natours attempts to return to Tel Aviv following a sojourn in Paris. When he is barred from flying on 10 September it being feared he is a suicide bomber he does not become irate at being persecuted because of his roots, but instead enjoys another 24 hours in Paris with a girl. But despite initially appearing laid back, he is determined to return home and engage in his peoples struggle. He then describes his journey home on 11 September, a journey during which he endures hours of airport interrogation and the blatant suspicion of other passengers.

Natour gives a superb performance, generating a real sense of passion for his homeland, and a determination towards further freedom and understanding. Sometimes he demonstrates a quiet despair, at other times he reels off lines at breakneck speed (though, with the play being in Arabic, this made some of the surtitles impossible to read). Between his speeches music was played which enabled him to maintain pace, and demonstrate his quite considerable skills in movement.

The writing, however, didnt match the level of the acting. The fundamental problem was that this central, supposedly terrible, day he was describing didnt come across as all that bad. I have never encountered as much interrogation or hostility as Natours character, but listening to it presented here, I felt that Id had worse days myself. I sensed that, in attempting to encourage the audience to associate with the play by describing a day from hell that everyone could relate to, writer Taher Najib dumbed things down too much. Consequently, while the plays opening was fairly intense, it then failed ever to rise substantially above this level.

Similarly, the characters subsequent sinking into total despair made the play excessively two-dimensional. By the end of the play, after enduring further hostility in Tel Aviv, he has nothing more to offer and desires not to wake up tomorrow. But what should be the ultimate emotive ending is marred by the feeling that this is not how this character would behave. It seems implausible that a man who was so determined to return from Paris because of a deep-seated need to involve himself in the struggle should then find himself so quickly having no fight left. His decision to return was moving and powerful; but seeing him afterwards undermines that.

Even his declaration that he doesnt wasnt to spit anymore, having realised it is pointless, is disappointing, especially since he alluded to the purposes of this act at the start. It feels as if there is something weak in his simply giving it up.

Weighing in at a mere fifty-five minutes, the play actually felt as if it could have benefited from an additional thirty. I didnt crave length for lengths sake, but that felt like the time needed to add the required depth to the piece. Najibs writing clearly struck a chord with director, Ofiria Henig, an Israeli who has lived between two realities and two cultures, but to me the play failed to engage those with no direct connection to the Israel/Palestine situation. Of course, there may be people from all walks of life who feel that they can relate to it, but for me it was a deeply underwhelming experience.

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