Tunis, 1943. Youssef (Ethan Kai), an affable Arab local half-heartedly working with Nazi occupying forces, has been asked to piss on the face of his good friend Victor (Pierro Niel-Mee), a Jew who been interred and buried up to his head in the sand by said Nazis. Victor is kind of up for this: he is hot and thirsty and reasons that a jet of urine can only be an improvement. Things pretty much go downhill for the two of them from there.
Josh Azouz’s magnificently-named ‘Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied Tunisia’ is a tricky thing to pin down, but I suppose you could call it an absurdist comedy about tensions between Jewish, Arab and colonial European cultures, set in a time and place where all three were reacting painfully to each other.
Alongside Yusuf and Victor we meet their wives, lifelong friends Faiza (Laura Hanna) and Loys (Yasmin Paige, wonderfully intense), plus the play’s antagonist, Adrian Edmondson’s batshit mental Nazi commandant ‘Grandma’. He sets the events of the rest of the play in motion when he suggests to the buried Victor that he might go and pay Loys a little visit.
Is this a period drama? Yes and no. Azouz – who is of Arabic-Jewish descent himself – has stated that he is interested in shining a light on a specific time and place. Given most of us know very little about Nazi-occupied Tunisia, his play surely succeeds. However, his text and Eleanor Rhode’s production wilfully avoid getting bogged down in historical detail: the sharp, snappy dialogue feels anachronistically modern, and it’s almost a running joke that the characters constantly allude to all the languages they’re supposedly switching between, despite the whole thing being performed in unaccented English. Max John’s set has a few striking details – notably an ornate pool that appears in the second half – but is largely a series of unmarked wooden risers that could represent anywhere. And although the Nazis on the whole dress like Nazis, the Tunisians dress with a sort of generic early twentieth-century elegance that feels intentionally culturally nonspecific.
The sense that this could be both then and now feels particularly brought home by the sections where Loys and Victor debate flight to Palestine and argue with other characters about the legitimacy of Zionism. It perhaps bugged me that the immediate existential threat to the Jewish couple felt downplayed in what often felt like a dinner party argument. But there’s no denying that the discussion in large part feels uncomfortable because 80 years on, the issues raised feel wholly unresolved.
The Zionism chat stands out because it feels jarringly earnest in a play that largely trades in the blackly absurd. Edmondson’s Grandma feels like he’s wandered in from an Orton comedy, but it’s a terrific performance of comic menace, and he’s actually the perfect disruptive element. He’s less the embodiment of Nazi ideology than that of European colonialism more generally. Posh, unflappably cheerful, and with a deep interest in Jewish history and culture, he regards the locals with an anthropologist’s zeal: fascinating lifeforms that he’d dissect given half the chance. Unlike the other characters he is wholly improbable as a human being, and yet what he represents – and the impact of his actions – rings horribly true.
It’s a fascinating play, and one that I should stress I had to see slightly early due to a holiday, ie it’ll have been tweaked more come press night. For me the biggest problem was that its fitful brilliance fails to yield a final killer point. It tackles timeless, painful, historic themes, but really its climax is just the characters responding to a set of fairly specific circumstances that Azouz has contrived. The plot is wrapped up, with a degree of allegorical resonance, but really it feels like it’s stylishly backed away from the harder questions it’s raised. Still it’s a brave, hilarious and singular play – perhaps it’s not the masterpiece it threatens to be, but it’s still something pretty special.