In the autumn of 2011, the Bush Theatre’s Artistic Director, Madani Younis, along with Associate Director Omar Elerian, travelled to Haifa, Israel. There, they joined rehearsals for The Beloved, collaborating with writer Amir Nizar Zuabi and production company Shiber Hur to prepare this retelling of the story of Abraham and Isaac for an international audience. The Bush will host the UK premeire of The Beloved this spring as part of World Stages London. Here, Omar reflects on the journey.
Our driver, the only civilian in the arrivals hall at Ben Gurion Airport, recognises us by the look on our faces. It is all slightly surreal, landing in Tel Aviv at 5am on a Saturday, approaching the immigration desk with exotic and not-so-friendly-sounding Arabic surnames—and it is no surprise that we are the only two passengers from our London flight to be “selected” for separate screening before entering the country. An hour later, it is not a misspelled name on a sign that connects us with our driver, but his recognition of our confusion. People around here know how things work.
We arrive in Haifa on a beautiful autumn day, then sleep for a couple of hours before strolling down to the Al Midan Theatre to meet Nizar, the writer and director of the Shibur Hur production, The Beloved.
The play is a re-telling of the story of Abraham and Isaac, a tale at the very source of the three monotheistic religions that were born from this beautiful, dramatic and contested land; as part of World Stages London, The Beloved will be one of the highlights of the Bush Theatre’s new season.
Last time we met Nizar was on the roof of our theatre in West London, when the foyer bar was still a sketch on the wall and the main auditorium looked like a crazy idea held up by four pillars. We met after seeing his previous work at the Young Vic, and spoke about theatre, family and identity. Something that day clicked between the three of us – perhaps the unbearable shared curse of having to spell our names out twice to any new acquaintance.
Here, he is at home, and greets us with a warm Mediterranean hug. And it is great to be here, in Haifa, sitting in an Arab theatre in Israel at midday, having slept two hours, decrypting accents that sound ancient and yet so familiar, like the story being told on stage.
In the dark theatre, the air is thick with cigarette smoke and dust, like my first time in a dress rehearsal, back in the 20th century. Ninety minutes later, we’ve been blown away by an astonishing cast of performers, a play where every word carries the weight of a mountain and a story so epic, yet so intimate, that we can barely remember that we’d heard of it countless times before.
Yes, we discuss some production details over nibbles at lunch; Nizar wants to tweak, cut, explore, re-write, expand, and all those things that ambitious and exigent artists do when they see their work. Yes, we speak about the set, lights and costumes while we dig with our spoons through a monumental kunafa. Yes, there are things to be improved and problems to be solved, and there’s another four days of open rehearsals to work on it together. But the play is there; touching, epic, thought-provoking, mesmerizing. The actors leave their souls on stage; their words and gestures resonate through the rest of our stay, remaining with us while we take a day to visit Jerusalem and walk on its millenary white stones, as old as the tale we were just told.
We leave on a Tuesday evening, having seen the show a few more times; we’re still talking about the play when we get in line to enter Ben Gurion Airport. The very intuitive security officer picks us out of the queue, checks our passports and, while confirming his intuition, makes us go through two hours of separate screening, a bit of questioning and lots of waiting before finally dismissing us.
Getting out takes always longer than getting in, Nizar told us; he was right. I’d asked myself before why was that the case; surely it should be the opposite, I thought. But then I think about this project, about why we love it: because alongside the renown artistic and aesthetic value of Shiber Hur’s work, we believe in stories, and voices, and ideas, no matter how hard they are to spell. Because theatres invite us on journeys, and because sometimes what we take out can be more valuable, or dangerous, or powerful, than what we bring in.