The Siege, a play dramatizing the 2002 siege by armed Palestinians of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, is in several ways the exact opposite of Oslo, the last drama about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to run in New York.
Oslo, which won the 2017 Tony for Best Play, was American playwright J.T. Rogers’ attempt at a balanced look at the high-level negotiations that led to the first Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. The Siege is Palestinian playwright Nabil Al-Raee and his co-director Zoe Lafferty’s ground-level look, from a Palestinian point of view, at a half dozen of the people who were holed up in the church, one of the holiest sites in the Christian religion, for the 39-day standoff. It is produced by the Freedom Theatre, a Palestinian company in the Jenin refugee camp on the West Bank, which is presenting the play for the first time in the United States, at NYU’s Skirball Center through October 22.
Based on recent interviews with the actual participants, the play occasionally positions its unnamed characters standing in a row Greek-chorus style facing the audience and offering often vague reminiscences in English (“We were fighters in our own land.”) But most of the 90-minute drama places the characters, speaking in Arabic with English subtitles, in the church in 2002 during the second intifada under the increasing strain of living day after day with dwindling supplies, surrounded by the Israeli army.
In a program note, the directors write: “With The Siege we aim to tell the story behind the western propaganda, upending the dominant narrative of the time: ‘the terrorists have entered a holy place and have taken the priest and nuns hostage.’ It is not a story of victimization but one of resistance in a situation of complete power imbalance.”
It is true there is threaded throughout the piece a clear-cut Palestinian perspective: After the combatants alarm a priest when they break into the church, they then convince him to let them stay: “Father, we apologize for breaking in this way. But we had no choice and we couldn’t wait.”
The actual narrative of the play, though, zeroes in on the group of men fighting off boredom, hunger, infection, anger, despair and stress. They argue with one another even as they try to support each other. Some of these scenes are affecting; some are full of shouting. There are only intermittent glimpses of the outside world – some brief video projections of Israeli tanks and Palestinian protest; the voice of an Israeli on a loudspeaker entreating them to surrender; one side of a telephone conversation with an official from the Palestinian Authority urging the men not to shoot their weapons so as not to rile the international community; a mother’s voice saying: “They want me to ask you to surrender. But I swear to God and all that is holy, if you turn yourself in, I will disown you.”
The playbill and the scheduled talkbacks after each performance are full of context — a timeline, recommended readings, the fascinating history of the 11-year-old Freedom Theatre, the larger issues in politics and art. But there is little intellectual illumination in the play itself of the situation in Bethlehem or the larger history in the Middle East. We are not privy to the negotiations that resulted in the end of the standoff, when the Palestinian Authority agreed to an exile to Europe or the Gaza Strip of those militants the Israelis considered the most dangerous.
The focus is on the emotions of the six men in the church, which makes it more important that the characters be fleshed out. But there are only a few tantalizing moments when their individuality emerges, such as the pained reaction of the son (Nassan Taha) to his militant mother, or the way we learn that one of the combatants (Ghantus Wael) is Christian: He explains why he objects to another combatant’s suggestion that they find the church cat and eat it, arguing that the cat has a soul. In another such humorous moment, we learn that one of the combatants doesn’t know the difference between the Vatican and Vietnam, prompting a colleague to say to him “We told you to stay in school but you didn’t listen…”
The design team is effective in its use of stage effects — lots of haze, noise, flashes of light simulating gunfire, dramatic lighting, dramatic music. But the competent stagecraft goes only so far in driving the play forward; the few vivid attempts at specific characterization suggest how much deeper a drama The Siege could have been.
The Siege is on stage at Skirball Center for the Performing Arts (566 LaGuardia Pl, New York, NY 10012, just south of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village), through October 22, 2017.
Created and directed by Nabil Al-Raee and Zoe Lafferty, written by Nabil Al-Raee, lighting design by Andy Purves, set design by Anne Gisle, music composed by Dror Feiler and Noor Al-Rae, costume design by Mo Yousef,, translation by Joy Sarah Arab and Malek Bsat, video design by Mustafa Stati, Photography by Baraa Shaqawi and Skip Schiel. Cast: Faisal Abualhayjaa, Alaa Abu Gharbieh, Rabee Hanani, Motaz Malhees, Hassan Taha, and Ghantus Wael. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell