The story of Saeed, a Palestinian bookshop owner who is imprisoned by the IDF [Israeli Defense Force] in order to pressure him into giving up information about his brother, a suspected resistance fighter. The play is on at Park Theatre, Finsbury Park, London from 22 January through 16 February 2014.
The Keepers of Infinite Space
The play by Omar El-Khairy (author of Burst, Sour Lips, and Given the Times) was engaging from the start though it might be confusing for about 5 minutes of the first scene, in which a British man runs through a brief PowerPoint presentation about “Rawabi”, a new planned city development project in the West Bank. It took a few minutes to register that he said his name was “Khalil” (because the “kh” sound doesn’t exist in English language, some people find difficulty in pronouncing it and listeners may not recognise an Arabic name when the man introduced himself). But once I realised he was a character from the play, that it wasn’t an actual PR bit for a real project, I settled into the story accepting that the rest of the actors would have English or Scottish accents, too.
“The Keepers of Infinite Space” was well-acted, well-rehearsed, though I agree with a few of the reviewers, that it lost a little of its flow in the second act with choppy dialogue and the flashbacks interjected throughout. As for the story line, it was plausible as an accurate portrayal of an Israeli prison so the situations portrayed seemed real enough.
The set and lighting were perfect for the play; spare, simple and very effective in setting the scene. And because we had to walk through the “prison” to get to our seats, the set helped the audience feel part of the story, too; we were so close to the action it was hard not to feel at times perhaps a little culpable in Saeed’s plight.
The first question I asked myself at the end is, how would the play have been different if the actors had actually been Middle Eastern? I’m not sure if the accessibility of the story for British audience would’ve been the same… so I’m not convinced it’s a bad thing they weren’t speaking with Arab or Israeli accents. Perhaps that they were speaking in their own regional accent helped greatly in relating the same situations/stories to myself (a British/American person).
Another question is, for people who have no knowledge or experience of the play’s context/content, how did they receive the play? Did they believe it? Did the story confirm or challenge their thinking about anything they knew previously? Would the play have had a different feel if the actors had first-hand experience themselves of the situations they played out? I find it hard to imagine that most of these actors did have relatable experience except for perhaps the man who played the Ethiopian guard and the Lebanese woman who was the character of Saeed’s wife.
Overall, I felt the play took on a very difficult task to illuminate a tiny corner of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict and did an OK job at that, but only because I had prior knowledge going into Park 90 auditorium. However unlikely, if someone is not quite clued in to the history and politics of Palestine/Israel before walking in the door, who knows what they’ll think coming out. At the very least, hopefully all members of the audience might have some questions about what they saw and be prompted to start looking for answers. On that point, kudos to playwright Omar El-Khairy for giving this tale a stage.
Cast of ‘The Keepers of Infinite Space’:
- Philip Correia (Saeed’s cellmate, 16-year old Palestinian boy jailed for throwing stones)
- Edmund Kingsley (“Saeed”, Palestinian bookshop owner)
- Cornelius Macarthy (“Ziv”, from Ethiopia, Israeli prison officer)
- Hilton McRae (“Khalil”, Saeed’s father)
- Laura Prior (Israeli prison officer)
- Sirine Saba (Saeed’s wife)
- Patrick Toomey (“Muhib”, Saeed’s cellmate)
- John Wark (“Abner”, Israeli prison warden)
The production of “The Keepers of Infinite Space” is co-sponsored by The Freedom Theatre, Palestine and Global Uncertainties, a UK programme dedicated to understanding the causes and mitigation for terrorism, weapons, organised crime, cyber-security and other global security threats.
Art and cultural resistance – a panel discussion
A panel discussion followed the play, which included: Momin Swaitat (Actor, Freedom Theatre Palestine), Zoe Lafferty (Associate Director, Freedom Theatre Palestine), Atef Alshaer (SOAS Research Fellow and translator), Rana Baker (SOAS student and Palestinian citizen journalist), Selma Dabbagh (Palestinian novelist and playwright), facilitated by Caroline Rooney (Global Uncertainties Leadership Fellow).
First off, I have to say, the play was good (I agree with the average review that gives 3 out of 5 stars) but for the discussion afterwards between the panel and the audience, I’d give that a 5. The audience was equally engaged with the round-table that started with the panel members defining the meaning of “cultural resistance” and “cultural intifada” A somewhat sparky debate quickly arose about whether or not non-Palestinians had the right or even the duty to speak on behalf of the Palestinians. Also there were questions about the validity and effectiveness of “cultural resistance” for Palestinians. Does it replace armed resistance? Does it complement other forms of resistance? Is any kind of resistance the way to go forward?
Among these questions and many others, 55 minutes soon vanished and sadly there wasn’t time for a satisfactory resolution to any of them, which left me with a lot to think about on the bus-ride home.
Click the link to view/download the transcript: Art and cultural resistance – Panel discussion – transcript [PDF]
More links and information
- Book tickets for Keepers of Infinite Space at Park Theatre – by Omar El-Khairy, at Park Theatre, Finsbury Park, London
- More about playwright, Omar El-Khairy
- Read about Freedom Theatre, in Jenin, West Bank/Palestine
- Find out more about Global Uncertainties programme, which “examines the causes of insecurity and how security risks and threats can be predicted, prevented and managed.”
- View/download Art and cultural resistance – Panel discussion – transcript [PDF]
Transcription by Kelise Franclemont (please alert me to errors/omissions in the comments).
Reviews of ‘The Keepers of Infinite Space’
- By Alexander Gilmour of Financial Times – 2/5 stars – “A play about a Palestinian prisoner in an Israel jail shouldn’t come across as so English”
- The Stage Reviews by Jonathan Watson – “flashes of brilliance…[but] you just can’t shake the feeling it is too self-conscious, too over-rehearsed”
- Everything Theatre – 4/5 stars – “…full of pathos, rage and loss; riveting to watch. If you want something both cerebral and dramatic with some polemic thrown in too, go and see it.”
- By Patrick Brennan in What’s on Stage – 3/5 stars – “an engulfing, immediate and powerful depiction of a man whose entire existence is crumbling before him”
- In TimeOut London by Daisy Bowie-Sell – 2/5 stars – “If the writing had more nuance, it may have been easier to trust the piece a little more.”
Event details: The Keepers of Infinite Space at Park Theatre, Clifton Terrace, Finsbury Park, London N4 3JP is showing 22nd January 2014 – 16th February 2014. Paid entrance, concessions. Evening shows daily except Mondays, with matinees Saturday and Sunday.
Did you find this a hard subject to address as the “other” when the play takes place and it about a people and a culture far away from London?
That is a key point that viewers of art (plays, sculpture or what have you) sometimes forget when looking at art from an “Other”, that I am an “Other” too! Yes I found the play about a Palestinian in Israeli prison might be a bit challenging for a British audience…the difficult thing with these stories is that 1)the situation being played out seems so far removed (it’s happening over THERE and doesn’t affect ME) and 2) it can kind of feel like that the artist is just boo-hooing loudly their victimisation, and then, that combined with 1), the underlying message of hope, strength and dignity in the face of adversity might be lost in the noise.
But perhaps as myself (a Westerner) in my own country, looking at a portrayal of a bad situation happening to an “Other”(Arab) in his country, because I’m in my home turf, I might be comfortable enough and receptive to getting past the “noise” to hear that very message of hope strength and dignity. But even so, everyone has to get past a lot of their own biases, pre-conceptions and prior knowledge to hear what an artist is trying to say. That’s not easy for anyone.