Review by Iman Boujelouah
The Bunker auditorium fills to the actors of this two-hander, (Ben Nathan and the vibrant Lara Sawalha,) asking audience members to take off their shoes. The shoes are then placed in a row downstage as the actors casually converse with the audience – an atmospheric sense of home is instantly created. On a bare stage, the actors recount the verbatim testimonies from Israelis and Palestinians, that Nathan, who also conceived the play, gathered on location. Both actors are adept at putting on varying shades of the Semitic accents, and transforming rapidly with impressive characterisations. Through clever direction (Daniel Goldman,) the actors place the audiences’ shoes across the stage, before pretending to stand in their shoes, as they perform each testimony. The masterful lighting design (Richard Williamson) tightly holds this illusion in place. The idea that the audiences’ shoes have now become those of the Semites, is heart-warming and already hits home the need for unconditional empathy to each testimony.
The testimonies are informative, thought-provoking insights into the region, that explore themes of ethnic tension, fear and conflict with great sensitivity. The piece throughout, remains well-balanced and non-biased, and it reinforces a dialogue of hope without ever sounding too preachy. Mostly, the testimonies trigger a cerebral response, and audiences are left questioning in an intellectual sense. At one point the performance invites the audience to question their preconceptions: whilst the audience are watching a Jewish woman’s testimony, they are asked using green and red cards to show whether they agree with her or not. The house lights are up in this scene, and all audience members are visible to each other. During this, Nathan is holding up a series of questions that prompt the audience to reflect on their decisions. This was a highly poignant technique, to get the audience to dissect the source of their opinions.
Both actors break out of character, to conceptually guide the audience throughout the performance. They directly address the issues faced in the rehearsal room, Sawalha spoke of being a Jordanian Christian actor that is often cast as Muslim or Jewish, Nathan spoke of his struggles as a Jewish actor and, of his experience of travelling to the Israel and Palestine. These interjections added further layers to the piece and made it more engaging overall. These interludes highlighted a strong emotional attachment the actors personally had to the piece – which for theatre in London – was refreshing to see.
This highly emotive topic was tackled intelligently by Goldman, however, the continually interactive nature began to distract from the content of the piece after some time. A particularly poor choice was getting audience members to read aloud testimonies as part of a support group scene. Goldman uses this to reiterate the universality of the human experience and to underscore the fundamental emotions of the testimonies as accessible for all audience members alike. However, the scene ends up fragmented and difficult to follow.
The play hammers home a message of hope and the increasing unity between the two countries, that have more in common, than that which separates them. Though at times the piece does not sit as fully realised. Nathan’s final testimony, which is his own, is a powerful note. He recounts feeling conscious of how Jewish he looked when in a Muslim neighbourhood, compared to a few days later after he had befriended a group of Muslims. This final message also resounds beautifully in the title. As though the play all along had promised to come full circle with one unifying descriptor for Palestinians and Israelis: Semites.
Semites is showing now at the Bunker until 24 November. For more information and to purchase tickets, go to to The Bunker website here.
Iman works full-time in banking but is currently training to be an actor. She will be performing at The Pleasance this December and at the Arcola next March. Follow her on Twitter: @notlikethemodel