PalFest (Dublin) – ‘The Luthier’ and ‘The Gaza Monologues’

PalFest

‘The Luthier’ by Lucy Caldwell and ‘The Gaza Monologues’ were staged in Dublin on Wednesday as part of PalFest – Ireland’s annual arts festival in solidarity and tribute to the people of Palestine. Although the scripts were written and compiled (respectively) in the aftermath of Israel’s brutal military activities in Palestine in 2008-9, both performances present a humane, unerringly eloquent, and unflinching perspective on situations that remain current today in Gaza and the Occupied Territories for young people – who provide the voices and characters in each play.

Caldwell’s theatre piece has the narrative concision of a short story and the resonance of poetry. There is heart-breaking good humour, for example, and a commendable lack of affectation in Dawood Al-Suleiman’s memory of his ten-year-old self, huddling round a television with his friends in the hope of finally getting to watch a ‘porno’, only to discover that the film they’ve smuggled into the player is in fact a breast-feeding tutorial. Kids will be kids, in their slapstick way – that is, of course, if they’re given the chance. The humanity of Dawood’s recollection is all the more vivid for the fact that those same friends – Yusuf, Hasan, Selim – were killed in an attack by the Israeli military soon afterwards, their pulverised remains identified by the shreds of Hasan’s good shirt. Dawood’s care and craftsmanship in mending violins for a living, in reconstructing instruments finely enough for music to be possible again, thus serves to enforce the sense of helplessness for ordinary people living in the shadow of atrocity: “[A] broken neck? Carve a new one”, Dawood suggests in his imagination and grief.

Of course, if Caldwell’s elegy for murdered childhoods and lost songs has the evocative intensity of poetry or music, it is made all the stronger in this quality by its grounding in factual experience. If, in the play, music becomes a way of acknowledging pain and violence that would otherwise be incommunicable, the play itself gives voice to what the ongoing historical record in Gaza, the West Bank, and the Occupied Territories in Palestine has made almost unspeakably vivid. The bombing of the four young Bakr cousins on Gaza beach during Israel’s offensive last summer is just one incident of which the events in ‘The Luthier’ seem agonisingly reminiscent – whatever about the hundreds of children also killed by Israeli aggression before and since Caldwell’s play was first commissioned in 2009. Dawood (played here with conviction and sympathy by Rob Malone) and his fellows live with both the memory and the prospect of war crimes echoing always in the streets outside. If they are haunted by ghosts, it’s because ghosts are all too real – white phosphorus, we’re told, can make children melt before your eyes. And there is nothing notional in such a horrendous thought for Dawood, and other victims of the Israeli military’s incursions. ‘The Luthier’ was staged under the deft direction of Davey Kelleher.

‘The Gaza Monologues’ similarly serves as a telling reminder of art’s capacity to record injustice, to remember pain, and to give articulate life to the deprivations and hopes of a suffering people. The Monologues project was devised in 2010 as an initiative to assist youths, traumatised by Israeli military assaults on Gaza, in communicating their struggles, concerns, experiences and feelings, and to do so in such a way that could be seen and acted out by people like them around the world (a short documentary about the initiative can be watched at this link). The recitations and performances by Irish teenagers here stands as a welcome gesture of support to the courage and creativity of the original authors/actors in Gaza.

Even more than Caldwell’s fictional piece, these extracts serve as both historical record and creative endeavour. As before, childhood is the central theme, and to both devastating and delicate effect: “I heard that in other countries, childhood is sacred”, one testimony reads; another witness states that, as to live in peace is impossible, her wish instead is “to die with dignity”; another, that “Gaza has no tenderness, no childhood.” Perhaps most incisively, and aside from being linked to the horrific memories and dangers that the teenagers must live with, the desperation that the speakers express seems to arise from the feeling that they are “so far from the rest of the world.”

Hopefully, through performances like these, such a burden can be alleviated in some small way. While Ireland may officially continue to retain its deplorably extensive military, economic and academic ties with Israel, there is at least such a thing as PalFest – testament to the bravery and endurance of ordinary Palestinians living under intolerable conditions and military rule. There is also the community of volunteers in Ireland (and elsewhere) who respond to that bravery with compassion, admiration, and creative solidarity – and who have made this year’s PalFest possible. Well worth supporting.

The festival will be hosting theatre, talks, and concerts around the country, and runs until Saturday, July 11th.