Patrick Driver, Stephen Finegold, Jennifer Kidd, Caroline Loncq, Christopher Patrick Nolan, Miranda Pleasence, Sirine Saba, Richard Simons, Jennie Stroller
Lebanese playwright Wajdi Mouawad’s second play comes to London after touring around the world and it couldn’t have found a better setting.
Written in 2003 and staged here by Dialogue Theatre, the play seems perfect for the subterranean Old Vic Tunnels; one simply could not imagine a more apt environment to depict the destructive effect of war on humanity. From the moment one is led through darkened tunnels, decorated only by heaps of sand, and hears the ominous thundering from above, the tone of the entire evening is set.
The imposing arches are countered with intimate lighting which bleeds across a dusty floor. It is both urban and exotic; London meets the Middle East, a ravaged yet eerily enveloping atmosphere. And this is all before we take our seats, cover our legs with the blankets provided whilst still attempting to absorb and in some way come to terms with the sense of danger that surrounds us: electricity and water, the rumbling above, a permeating chill. This is a visceral performance, one that you don’t just watch but experience.
The play follows the story of twins Janine and Simon, a maths teacher and a boxer, who after the death of their estranged mother, Nawal Marwan, are left the task of uncovering the mysteries surrounding her life. This sends them tumbling down a Middle Eastern rabbit hole and the story that unravels is both disturbing and engaging.
The play leaps frequently between times, from present day Europe to an unnamed Middle Eastern country beset by war; the former scenes are naturalistic in tone while the latter are dream-like, memories staged poetically. The play is full of unsettling and distressing imagery that successfully conveys the horrors of civil war; the tension builds effectively as the play develops and the continuous roar of the trains above provides an evocative underscoring.
Although the twins are difficult to connect with as characters, the audience are more successfully drawn into the life of their mother, Nawal; three actors are used to play out the various stages of her life and this adds a welcome sense of female generational camaraderie to the piece.
This is complimented by a convincing performance from Miranda Pleasence as Nawal’s travelling companion, Sawda. Accents are not adopted as such, but the tones with which the women speak are reflective of the patterns of the Arabic language. This adds to the mystical quality of Mouawad’s writing. Occasionally this constant leaping through time gets to be too much and the scenes with Nawal feel curtailed, the return to the present day storyline coming as something of a jolt.
Sensitively directed by Patricia Benecke, the production features some outstanding performances, particularly from the three women playing Nawal – Jennifer Kidd, Caroline Loncq and Jennie Stroller – and the realisation that some of the events are based on Mouawad’s real life experiences is potent to say the least.