fri 15/10/2021

Once Upon A Time In Nazi Occupied Tunisia, Almeida Theatre review - flawed theatre but a great experiment | reviews, news & interviews

Once Upon A Time In Nazi Occupied Tunisia, Almeida Theatre review - flawed theatre but a great experiment

Once Upon A Time In Nazi Occupied Tunisia, Almeida Theatre review - flawed theatre but a great experiment

Playwright Josh Azouz's absurdism owes as much to Sacha Baron Cohen as to Beckett

There's a spy in my soup - Adrian Edmondson as 'Grandma' and Yasmin Paige as LoysImages by Marc Brenner

An ageing Nazi, stuffed into a slightly too tight white linen suit, sits at the opposite end of the dining table to a young Jewish woman. Between them is a dish of chicken stew that we, just moments beforehand, have seen her lace with poison.

The tone is darkly comic – "I’ve dreamed about killing Nazis," she tells him. Drily he replies, "Do you want to talk about that?" Still he eats the stew, declaring "Poison can make you foam at the mouth, bleed from the eyes." There is a chilling silence. "In that way it’s very similar to gas."

Playwright Josh Azouz – who is descended from Sephardic Jews – has chosen to explore the Vichy occupation of North Africa with an absurdism that owes as much to Sacha Baron Cohen as it does to Samuel Beckett. As he revealed to the Jewish Chronicle, as so often with horrific political situations, it was not difficult to find comedic anomalies. "When I was reading memoirs from the camps in Tunisia, the Nazis had names like Grandma and Little Feller and Memento… I would read that the Nazis would have to keep rotating the Arab guards because they were getting too friendly with the Jews."

Eleanor Rhode’s production, which plays out on a set where staggered wooden boxes create an abstract desert, opens with a scene in which the Jewish Victor (Pierro Niel-Mee) is buried up to his neck in the sand. So far, so Samuel Beckett. Ethan Kai’s Arab guard, Youssef walks on and tells him he’s been instructed to urinate on his face. When the first attempt at urination fails, a conversation unfolds in which, crucially, we learn that Youssef and Victor have a friendship that long predates the prisoner camp. (Pictured below, Ethan Kai with Pierro Niel-Mee)

It’s an arresting piece of star-casting to have Adrian Edmondson playing the Nazi commander who presides over the banality of evil on display here. Fascinatingly he brings none of the manic violent energy that made him famous as Vyvyan in The Young Ones or Eddie Hitler in Bottom. Instead he interrogates the world around him with a gently bitter bug-eyed sadism. Nicknamed “Grandma” because of his knitting habit, he is the embodiment of grotesque political cynicism disguised by privilege and charm. In what feels like a particularly contemporary jab, one character shouts: “You’ve got a nice accent, that’s probably why you’ve got away with talking so much shit for so long.”

Once Upon a Time...at the Almeida. Ethan Kai (Youssef) and Pierro Niel-Mee (Victor)Azouz’s play feels like a fantastic experiment, but he is – ironically – slightly undermined by how fascinating and largely unknown the real detail of his subject matter is. Absurdism works best in a context when the audience members are thoroughly familiar with the minutiae of the political or religious system being subverted.

Yet it’s still a surprise to many people that German attempts to collaborate with Muslims date back as far as World War I, when Kaiser Wilhelm II declared himself the great friend of the Ottoman Empire and led an active campaign to foment jihad against the British and French. Here World War II’s Vichy occupation of Tunisia is used as a way of exploring several issues. These range from the impact of the Nazi occupation on the friendship of Victor and Youssef and their wives to the stridently controversial comparison of Nazi anti-Semitism to Muslim attitudes to the Jews. Another – underexplored – question is the degree to which the Tunisians might have felt that perhaps their treatment at the hands of the Nazis was better than what they had experienced under the French.

A few days after press night it felt like the younger cast members were becoming more comfortable with the significant shifts in tone demanded by their roles. Often the jauntiness grates, but as the emotional stakes are raised Yasmin Paige, playing Victor’s wife Loys (main picture, with Adrian Edmondson), in particular brings a gravitas and outrage that makes the humour spark far better.

It’s refreshing to see Azouz wrestling with this kind of subject matter, and at a time when political extremists – not least in France – are vying to produce palatable versions of hate for their own gain, the questions he raises are important. Yet this is flawed theatre – a great experiment, but not the breakthrough work that will no doubt one day make this playwright a big name.

@Hallibee1

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