Part 2: Once Upon A Time in Nazi Occupied Tunisia
I’d been forewarned to expect something very ‘different,’ especially when I saw that a cast member had asserted that “People will laugh, and then immediately question themselves.” Josh Azouz’s Once Upon A Time in Nazi Occupied Tunisia – the title reflecting some of the more absurdist and bizarre aspects – was certainly far from your average Holocaust play. Directed by Eleanor Rhode, there was a knitting Nazi called Grandma, whose nightmarish sidekicks went by the monikers of Little Fellow and Memento; a cunning set, designed by Max Johns, which at first glance represented sand dunes and then produced props, a pool and even a dining room in short order by the simple opening of boxes; and in the play’s opening, a man buried up to his neck was urinated on by his friend – who also happened to be a collaborator – in a bid to quench his thirst. And yes: we laughed.
The play really shows how the fault lines open up within humans in times of crisis: the complexity of relationships; how we act out of fear and survival instinct; and our ability to turn on those we love – or thought we loved – best. It blurs the lines between ‘categories’ in the Holocaust: Muslim Youssef works for the Nazis, having apparently been persuaded by their promises of an independent Tunisia, and admits to abusing a man who tries to speak up against them; yet tries to take care of Jewish Victor when he is buried for punishment, and ultimately helps him escape. As well as depicting a lesser-known aspect of history, the play touches upon the omnipresence of Islamophobia and antisemitism, and the history of Palestine and Israel. An intense exchange between Nazi Grandma and Jewish Loys seemed to speak directly from the heart of populist, post-Brexit Britain – it was even more chilling as Grandma’s views about race and human nature were uttered in an unexaggerated, conversational manner.
Ade Edmondson as Grandma gave a brilliant performance in the first half; genuinely chilling in a combination of joviality and génocidaire, he could go in seconds from warmth and camaraderie to quiet, dominating menace and eyes with nothing behind them. (What made it scarier is that we all know someone like him, the older male who we think we know, but keep finding things that we can’t – or don’t – want to say ‘just in case.’) When he intruded into Loys and Victor’s home at the end of the first act, and was challenged by an increasingly desperate Loys, it was riveting. Alas for the second half: Grandma’s efforts to persuade his captors to release him were too obviously false, and would have been more effective if he had seemed more genuine, leading to a real moment of consideration and crisis for the other three.
Yasmin Paige as Loys gave a strong performance, especially in being torn between Victor as her husband and Youssef as the man she really loves. However, it could have been stronger by dialling back a bit and varying her delivery, which was often quite high and loud, especially when confronted with Grandma and later desperately conspiring with Victor and Youssef. Laura Hanna’s Faiza was complex and heart-breaking in her knowledge that Youssef and Loys care for each other, and her equal determination to preserve her marriage and her love. Her disbelief at Loys’ reaction when they discussed the murder of a Jewish toddler by Muslim neighbours – which in Faiza’s eyes was an isolated incident, not an expression of antisemitism – seemed all too reminiscent of contemporary attitudes.
Pierro Niel-Mee as Victor gave an almost Shakespearean performance that at times was a bit out of place in the small theatre. Having said that, both Azouz’s writing and Niel-Mee’s performance had me alternating between sympathy and dislike, often within moments – I’m thinking especially of when his devastation when he realised Loys’ love for Youssef, and his bursting into Islamophobic slurs. When he later described a friend freezing to death in the concentration camp, and sucking on the body’s ice to relieve his thirst, the pity in the room was palpable. Ethan Kai as Youssef was a strong and complex presence. His was a character clearly trying to simultaneously navigate increasingly hostile circumstances and preserve some kind of moral code. He worked for the Nazis, yet constantly aided Victor; he loved Loys, yet tried to stay true to Faiza. When he broke in the play’s final scene and begged Loys to come away with him, we too felt the ebb and flow of the hopeless situation: his love and desperate want to build a new life with Loys, and the impossibility of leaving the now-pregnant Faiza, all underscored by the creeping danger of the Nazis.
I can’t be sure if it was the writing or the performances, but the second half wasn’t as engaging as the first. The performances certainly needed to be toned down in the second act, as a lot of urgency and intensity was lost. (A piece of exposition about the architecture deadening sound worked in terms of captive Grandma not being heard by the soldiers outside, but didn’t explain why Victor, Loys and Youssef continued to speak loudly when trying to plan their escape; surely our natural instinct when threatened, even if we’re fairly sure no-one can hear, is to whisper, or at least speak quietly?)
Once Upon A Time in Nazi Occupied Tunisia finished its run at the Almeida on 18 September, but the script would be great for working with older students, especially in view of the wide range of issues covered and the questions raised.