Theatre, Drama
3 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

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Thoughtful solo storytelling show about the life of Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali

This one-man play recalls the life of Taha Muhammad Ali: a Palestinian who grew up in Saffuriya in Galilee, lived through the turbulent creation of Israel and ran a souvenir shop in Nazareth (‘a Muslim selling Christian memorabilia to Jews’) at the same time as he emerged as an internationally recognised poet in his forties. The show’s writer, Amer Hlehel, also plays Ali, talking us through his life and occasionally switching to Arabic to recite extracts from his poems while English translations appear on the wall behind him.

Hlehel is a pleasing and compelling raconteur, leading us from Ali’s unexpected survival after the untimely death of several siblings soon after their birth to his early obsession with British and German radio and his youthful aptitude for making a quick buck, starting with selling eggs to his neighbours. We move through Ali’s infatuation with a young girl, Amira; his family’s move to a refugee camp in Lebanon; his experience of seeing his old village bombed and becoming a military zone; and finally his first literary steps, writing poetry that was ‘not fashionable… not political or polemical’. 

It’s a simple, thoughtful show, a work of compassionate theatrical biography that you could equally imagine listening to on the radio to similar effect. The stage is almost bare, bar a square of yellow and a small bench; Hlehel dresses neutrally in trousers, shirt and a tank top; his only prop is his briefcase and his endearingly hurried delivery cuts through the show’s wordiness. As well as warmly charting the evolution of a writer, the show also offers a moving ground-level insight into the upheavals suffered by mid-twentieth-century Palestine. But its tone is far from tragic: it displays an acute eye for life’s absurdities that climaxes with the story’s final set piece when Ali gives an unintentionally slapstick literary reading in London. It’s a gently compelling tale, honouring the power of words above everything else.


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