Deriving un-biased poignancy from a controversial cultural context can be no easy task, however Amir Zuabi’s “I Am Yusuf” proves you don’t have to pussyfoot around historical-political agendas to produce balanced, empathetic theatre.
In a recent interview with the ‘Living Scotsman’, this multitalented Palestinian playwright/director said that “I don’t want to be defined by the fact that I come from a battle zone.” however this recent ShiberHur production does little to circumvent this stereotype, choosing rather to play upon it in order to deepen the emotional impact of the narrative.
Set in 1948, “I Am Yusuf” centres around the relationship between two brothers, Yusuf, and Ali; their attempts to come to terms with the partitioning of their country; the struggling relationship Ali has with a girl named Nada, whose father forbids a match between the two on account of Yusuf’s questionable mental stability; and the resulting war after the division of Palestine and Israel. The characters’ reactions to the partition and consequential war obviously emphasise political context, seemingly counter-acting Zuabi’s desire to alter the association the British public has between Palestine and military conflict; however, as opposed to making an ill-conceived effort to ignore the political commentary that (according to Zuabi) the British public has come to expect, the production heightens the focus on human relationships by acknowledging the significance of its historical and political context.
A great deal of the performance was in Arabic, staying true to the locality of the narrative, but obviously establishing a language barrier, the solution to which proved distracting: the subtitles displayed on two screens either side of the stage detracted from moments of high tension when you desperately wanted to keep your attention on the actors’ performance. Despite the occasional concern that you’ve missed something important, the cast’s energy and attentiveness to their dialogue was sincere and consistent, especially in the case of Amer Hlehel portraying Yusuf. The child-like dependency on his brother, and good-natured stupidity was endearing, and led the audience to sympathise with the character at each moment of emotional distress.
Jon Bausor’s stage design and Colin Grenfells lighting complimented the production’s transitioning mood and circumstances, creating an air of decaying humidity via the use of muted amber lighting, smoke, dirty canvas and a rusting bath-tub suspended by fraying ropes above centre stage. This initial sight was in perfect contrast with the second half of the run, when the lights faded to a chilling blue-grey, and the canvas was raised above a flooding stage, reflecting the recurrent water metaphors of the main dialogue (and providing a good excuse for the cast to soak the front row during more physically enthusiastic moments).
“I am Yusuf” was haunting and sincerely moving, choosing to acknowledge Palestine’s historical background in order to heighten the intensity of the relationships on stage, and in doing so, tactfully drawing attention to our own prejudices and perceptions concerning human nature in times of military conflict.