A couple of years ago in London, I saw the play The Arrest of Ai Weiweiby, by Howard Brenton, at the Hampstead Theatre.
The play is about the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei who was arrested by the Chinese authorities at Beijing airport on April 3rd, 2011 as he was about to board a flight to Taipei. Ai Weiwei spent 81 days in detention without trial. He was accused of being a subversive, a conman and a pervert, who “could damage state security.”
Edward Hall the artistic director of Hampstead Theatre explains his choice of this special topic in the program notes: ”We had been looking for a play about China since starting in Hampstead and knew that it was a subject that Howard Brenton was keen to explore. The rise of China is clearly one of the most important developments of modern times but it has hardly been discussed.”
The arrest and the disappearance, without trial, of the artist reveals a lot about oppression in China today, and potentially could have brought about an exciting and critical play about its development. However, Brenton chose to remain close to his source, Ai Weiwei, and based the play on real conversations with the artist after his release.
The play reveals very little about China, it consists of lengthy discussions between the dissident artist and his interrogators about the differences between conceptual art, his kind of art, and traditional art. In that play the two types symbolize free spirit vs order and oppression.
The play didn’t work for me. I remained detached and cared very little for what was happening on stage.
Since theater is such an immediate medium, the playwright, director and actors have to make sure that they keep up the audience’s interest at any given moment. This is especially challenging when the play explores an abstract concept like a conflict. One helpful technique, which was missing in #aiww The Arrest of Ai Weiweiby, is to make sure that all characters on stage, on both sides of the conflict, maintain their humanity. In Brenton’s play the characters involved were reduced to stereotypes, and the audience was not able to identify with them.
Moreover, in today’s conflicts we often find soldiers or policemen in uniform as representatives of oppression, and it is much harder to give human faces to those. In the case of the Chinese interrogators Brenton didn’t even try.
But I was delighted to see that a young and talented Israeli playwright and director, Stav Palti-Negev, was up for the challenge. Her play Salim Salim defies stereotypes and manages to convey the complexity of the Palestinians and Israeli conflict through real human beings. Salim Salim won the best play award, and the best actor award in the Acre Festival of Alternative Israeli Theatre 2014, and it now plays at Tmouah Theater in Tel Aviv.
As the audience get into the hall before the start of the play they are given a special pass and led to Erez Checkpoint. The audience sit on stage, on both sides of the barb wire fence. One side is Israel and the other is Palestine; most of the action takes place in the middle, in the no-man’s land between the two worlds.
During the 50 minutes play I felt that I was forcefully thrown into a man-made limbo. There I became personally involved in the destiny of real people whose life is ruined by the Israeli Palestinian conflict. Obviously I empathized with the tragedy of Salim and his family, they are the oppressed. But I also got to look at the human face of the oppressors: the two young Israeli soldiers in uniform who are left all alone to do the dirty job at Erez checkpoint .
In spite of the difficult topic, Salim Salim is a poignant and powerful play about the human price of conflicts. It shows oppression, violence, suspicion and despair, but also small acts of kindness.
For me it was especially meaningful to see such an honest play about the Palestinian Israeli conflict here in Tel Aviv.
Salim Salim Tmounah Theater Tel Aviv June 16th, 17th at 8pm