AZZA - ADELAIDE
AZZA, ShiberHur Theatre Company at the Adelaide Festival at the Space Theatre, 14-18 March 2018. Photography from various sources
In Australia exclusively for the Adelaide Festival is one of those theatre works that make being at a festival worthwhile: a show one would otherwise never be able to access or even know of its existence. That’s Azza, from the ShiberHur Theatre Company of Haifa.
Playwright and director Amir Nizar Zuabi is an internationally-known Palestinian writer and theatre-maker. He trained as an actor at the Nisan Nativ drama school in Jerusalem (the only Palestinian among Israeli students, one of whom he later married!) He then worked at the al-Kasaba Theatre in Ramallah at the time of the second intifada.
The sketch pieces he and the company devised at that time became a show titled Alive From Palestine. It went to the Royal Court and Zuabi then spent a year at the Young Vic, went on to work in Moscow and finally returned home to the Palestinian National Theatre.
In 2010 Zuabi wrote I Am Yusuf and This Is My Brother for a new company, ShiberHur, its mandate was to tour Palestinian refugee camps and villages. In an interview in The Guardian at that time, Zuabi explained, “We have everything going against us as a theatre movement. Lack of funds, infrastructure, the fact that theatre is not really part of our cultural tradition – we come from a poetic tradition.”
The play was phenomenally successful with audiences, however, as he said, “It’s a new art form for us. We have an audience that’s completely uncatered for and is very thirsty. Once they know theatre exists, they keep coming back.”
Azza is a beautiful one-hour show and also the word in Arabic for the mourning ritual of Palestine. In the program Zuabi notes, “Since my childhood, our mourning ceremony was puzzling for me. The men of the community, dense and wrapped in silence, would gather and exchange vague and ancient words of condolence and then leave...when my father got ill and the inevitable became tangible, I decided to create a show based on the ceremony. It was my way of diffusing my fear of the ritual and to fully understand it.”
As so often happens with the best-laid plans, Zuabi’s father died two weeks before rehearsals were due to begin and life became inextricably entwined with art and death. The result, performed by Khalifa Natour, Henry Andrawes, Amer Hlehel, Adeeb Safadi, Wael Wakeem and Amer Khalil is at once earthy and dreamlike, funny and touching, sad and infuriating – much like any process of death and grieving, anywhere.
The auditorium is an empty expanse overhung by a tent-like roof and side-lit with mainly subdued and bluish tones. Occasional spotlit patches of sun highlight individual moments as a man tells of his recent bereavement (lighting design Muaz Jubeh). Friends and relatives come to sit and mourn, enact the ritual (hand to heart, a hug, a back slap – very male, very gruff, very universal) and go again. They chant and pray and a subtitle screen opposite the audience translates the Arabic.
Rows of white plastic stackable chairs are variously arranged and re-arranged around the space as the men go through three days of prayer and ritual in a swirl of movement (choreography by Samar Haddad King) and harmonious song (music by Faraj Suleiman). A large part of it means sharing stories of the dead man’s life and times. They are the small memories of an ordinary life: of hopes and dreams, failures and achievements.
The men enact the best anecdotes, including a darkly hilarious memory of a runaway donkey that jumped over a cliff, landed in an almond tree and during an ultimately catastrophic rescue attempt, eventually exploded after an unplanned flight and contact with a sharp rock.
Azza is a mesmerising and fascinating experience for a non-Arab-Australian audience because it’s both instantly recognisable and also exotically different. Comfort and curiosity are part of the mix and both are satisfied turn and turn about. The performances offer a gradual insight into each individual and their place in the scheme of life and mourning, including the classic tussle between two brothers: the one who stayed and did all the work and the other who’s breezed in and expects to be treated as the prodigal.
Azza is an intimate and moving hour of performance and music that is entirely focused on the human adventure of life and death. The greater circumstances beyond this particular village barely impinge, much as happens anywhere in the world. It’s an interesting reminder of what matters and how we love and live – despite all.
It’s a piece that underlines the personal as political and the importance of community – one’s own community and culture; the walls, wire and military that might be less than a kilometre away are irrelevant. As Zuabi said in the 2010 Guardian interview, “There is no spite. I find the blame game futile. It’s not like I do theatre to crush Israeli propaganda. I don’t hear Israeli propaganda. I don't care about it.”
Azza is the propaganda of life, love and memory and one of the most illuminating ways to spend an hour that could be devised.