3 and a half stars
Captivated by the beauty, one is in danger of missing the dialogue.
Beauty is rarely found in London, rarer still in a war zone, and yet here it is in the recently founded theatre company ShiberHur’s production of ‘I am Yusuf and this is my brother’ at the Young Vic.
The setting is Palestine, 1948 the British mandate is ending, land ownership is being determined by the UN, and the story concerns the ordinary people whose lives it effects, their present and their future.
Much credit is due to Jon Bausor whose design of this production was, put simply, stunning. Each image presented could have stood alone as an outstanding photographic picture. The canvas, which cloaked the stage, echoed the deserts of Palestine and during the climax of the piece its elevation effectively complimented the surrealism. The overriding metaphor of water became literal when the stage was flooded during the final scenes. The rippling light reflections and sounds of splashing added significantly to the depth of the story. The aesthetics of this production are what made it stand out.
One moment in particular that stood out and was truly touching was the instant at which the British soldier Rufus, played by Paul Fox, crouches over his transistor radio as Yusuf holds the wire aloft and the sounds of Bellini’s “Casta diva” escape for a few short moments to Yusuf’s wonderment and the soldiers ecstasy.
The language of the play was less infallible than the design. Told in a mixture of Arabic and English one could not help wondering why it was not one or the other, the Arabic lent fantastically to the authenticity of the piece and complimented the exquisite Rai music. However the subtitles displayed far above the stage did restrict viewing, and the alternation between the two languages was often confusing.
Overall the acting was good but the performances from Amer Hlehel and Yussef Abu Warda as Yusuf outshone all others. The shifts between past and present and the merging between the two time periods was effective for the simple reason that these two actors mirrored each other so effectively without hindering their own portrayals. Yusuf talks directly to the audience and this interaction, which can sometimes, in theatre, feel contrived, works. It is humorous and makes the character even more endearing. Yusuf is the star of the piece both from the actors and the characters point of view. His innocence and vulnerability contrasted beautifully to the conflict of the plays setting. His use and focus on proverbs made certain moments more poignant and thought provoking.
One of the great things about a play whose writer and director is one and the same is the strength of the characters and as Amir Nizar Zuabi says “this play is about them: people, just ordinary people –“. Indeed it is the people of this play that give it its strength.
The main fault of this piece ironically conflicts with its best feature. The tragedy of the Palestine conflict and the lives it destroyed is undermined by the beauty and sentimentality of this production and yet the beauty and sentimentality is what makes it significant.