The play “Iman: Walled in Walled out” has a good claim to being one of the most powerful pieces of Palestinian-related theatre ever staged in Britain. The play, written and directed by Robbie McGovan, Neil Maskell, Dominic Power and Lucy Flack, was staged earlier this month at the Miskin Theatre in the town of Dartford, not far from London. Its cast of young British actors, mostly still in their teens, brought energy, commitment and passion to their performances.
The play consists of scenes and stories woven around the notorious killing by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) of 13-year-old Iman al-Hams in Gaza in October 2004. Iman was deliberately shot despite it being obvious that she was a schoolgirl, and Israeli soldiers later described how their commander emptied his entire magazine into her body.
The play had a direct visceral impact, intensified by the musical soundtrack performed by five talented and versatile young musicians. Their line-up of instruments included several with a Middle Eastern sound - dulcimer, mandolin and bazooki. When Leonie Evans sang, the effect was ethereal.
The play opened with the black-clad cast rushing and darting on to the stage in all directions, clutching eerie white masks. This dynamism and physicality was maintained throughout the drama.
The stage was at the centre of the auditorium, with rows of seats on either side. At times a muslin screen was suspended across the stage on which were projected images of Palestinian crowds and funerals, which mingled with the actors on stage.
Some of the scenes had an absurdist, dark humour, such as “The Toilet is Another Country” in which the IDF prevent a boy from using a latrine. The situation escalates to draw in more and more characters. In another confrontation, an old lady shot in the ankle by the IDF has a sarcastic exchange with a soldier who tells her to get up and hurry. Death is ever present, and in one visually eloquent scene girls wind a funeral sheet around a killed girl.
The play was developed through the Theatre in Education (TIE) process. Neil Maskell explains in the play’s published programme: “We start with around forty actors, a small group of musicians, a design, lighting and sound team along with no script, no story and no notion of where we will end up.”
As part of the research into music for the play, the singer and musician Reem Kelani, the leading authority on Palestinian music in Britain, conducted a one-day workshop with the cast and directors.
Dr Rosemary Hollis of the think tank Chatham House was consulted for her knowledge of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The visual arts input came from Palestinian artist Leila Shawa, much of whose work is inspired by the children of her native Gaza.
The play had its first run in the early summer. In its latest run the play was updated to take account of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, while pointing out that Israel still controls Gaza’s borders.
It would be interesting to see what young people in Palestine make of this work performed by Britons of their age. But taking the play and its cast to Palestine will probably have to wait for more peaceful times.
Saudi Gazette October 19 2005