Returning to Haifa
Reviewed – 1st March 2018
“this is at heart a very human story that unleashes powerful emotions”
You know you have witnessed something special at the theatre when there is an almost imperceptible beat, right at the end, just before the audience applauds. That split second speaks volumes.
“Returning to Haifa” is a compelling story of two families, one Palestinian, one Israeli, forced into an intimacy they did not choose. In 1948, Said and Safiyya fled their home during the Palestinian exodus. A series of laws passed by the Israeli government prevented them from returning until nearly twenty years later when the borders are open again. Returning to their home in Haifa in 1967 the couple are prepared to find someone else living in their former home. What they are not prepared for is the reconciliation with their son who they were forced to abandon, in the chaos and violence of their escape, when he was five months old. Now twenty years old he has been raised as an Israeli Jew – in short, his parents’ enemy.
Adapted for the stage by Naomi Wallace and Ismail Khalidi from Ghassan Kanafani’s novella, this production is an electrifying eighty minutes of theatre. The background against which it is set may steer the story into a form of agitprop, which for some might be off-putting. However, this is at heart a very human story that unleashes powerful emotions. Following the couple’s return, with flashbacks into their past, the narrative is fluid and the interconnection between past and present expertly conveyed. Myriam Acharki as Safiyya and Ammar Haj Ahmad as Said embrace the characters’ prospect at returning home with genuine trepidation. In parallel, Leila Ayad and Ethan Kai play their younger selves. The effect is haunting. The actors have nowhere to hide in the Finborough’s intimate space, and each shift of emotion is precisely conveyed in the performances.
The end result is thought provoking, disturbing and memorable. The beauty of the writing lies in the amalgam of the political and the personal; the connection between individual and global struggles. This is brought to the fore when the couple finally meet their son. Acharki gives a spellbinding portrayal of the birth mother meeting the adoptive mother, with echoes of the ‘Judgement of Solomon’. Marlene Sidaway plays Miriam, the Jewish woman who raised the boy having lost her own son to the Holocaust, with a perfectly judged empathy while Ethan Kai who doubles as Dov, the grown up son, is heart wrenching in his rejection of his natural parents.
You don’t need to be au fait with the conflict, historical or current, to appreciate this play, yet it does give you a better understanding of the situation than the countless column inches and broadsheet analysis do. This is theatre as it should be. Theatre that is raw, that challenges the way we think about the world. As Naomi Wallace has said: “Even if you disagree with the voices, they still deserve to be heard”. Kanafani was silenced when he was assassinated at the age of thirty-six, but this adaptation helps his legacy to live on. Originally commissioned in New York but subsequently abandoned after political pressure, it is no surprise at all that this premiere at the Finborough is selling out fast.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Scott Rylander
Returning to Haifa
Finborough Theatre until 24th March