Shubbak, meaning ‘window’ in Arabic, is a biennial festival taking place in various venues across London. The brochure reads like an A to Z of human misery. All the tired phrases from the Middle East’s history lurch up and poke the onlooker in the eye: ‘revolution’, ‘dystopia’, ‘cries of pain’, ‘ruins’, ‘waking nightmare’. The agony is leavened with slivers of earnest pretention. Corbeaux is a ballet designed for Marrakesh railway station by dancers who ‘take possession of public spaces’. Ten women with hankies over their hairdos move in ‘geometric alchemical arrangements’ making ‘piercing sounds and extraordinary cries’.
I decided to give that a miss and plumped instead for Taha at the Young Vic. This is a biographical study of the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali, who was born in Galilee in 1931, fled to a displacement camp in Lebanon, and later opened a commercial reliquary in Nazareth. He recounts the circumstances of his family’s eviction from their home town in 1948 but the details are left obscure. The place was partially destroyed — by whom is unclear — and they made their way to Lebanon along with thousands of their countrymen. Their move was facilitated by three factors: their mistrust of the British mandate, the willingness of their Arab neighbours to accept refugees, and their belief that their exile would be temporary. Returning to their home district, they found a new military governor in charge, who demanded obedience in return for ID documents that would entitle the holder to seek work. Thus Palestinians reluctantly participated in the creation of Israel.
Taha’s cuddly stoicism is calculated to win us over. He’s every westerner’s idea of ‘a good Palestinian’ — industrious, creative, unthinkingly pacifist. When not turning a profit at his crucifix shop (‘a Muslim who sells Christian trinkets to Jews’), he’s busy with his notebooks writing dreamy wordscapes about suffering and loss. Street riots and suicide plots hold no attraction for him. He avoids any mention of politics. Menachem Begin, the Stern Gang, Yasser Arafat? Never heard of them. Anti-Semitism? Not in his vocabulary. He admits that he felt an urge to kill the man who stole his land but he softened his attitude when he considered the occupier as a husband, a son, a father, a brother.
This carefully sanitised account of Palestine’s resistance is intended for multicultural audiences only. The important motive of racial violence has been set aside in favour of an even more important motive: getting money from the public purse. In that sense, Shubbak is a triumph
Sarah Daniels’s vintage work Neaptide was the first full-length play by a female writer ever staged at the National. The theme is lesbianism and the settings are a school and a hospital. And my God how things have changed. At the hospital, a typical doctor is a white British male. To summon help he barks the word ‘Staff!’ and a nurse (female) comes running. The school is an all-girls comprehensive led by a ‘headmistress’. The teachers avoid Christian names and address each other as Mr, Mrs, Miss. The new formulation, Ms, is regarded as faintly risible. A smug male English teacher utters it with a satirical cadence. The same character greets a new class of teenage girls with: ‘This is like looking at a box of chocolates when you’re on a diet.’ The girls, he tells us, adore these gallantries. That’s how things were in the early 1980s. These days he’d be on a paedophile watch list and his traumatised pupils would be in therapy, for ever, while their lawyers sued the authorities for millions.
The play is a wonderful document, touching, surprising, often funny. A woman pestered by a man is advised ‘to stab him with your Women Against Violence badge’. The script argues that the foes of lesbian liberation were middle-aged women who regarded girl-on-girl action as a shameful eccentricity, or even a perversion, that brought all women into disrepute. The plot follows a pair of teens caught in a Sapphic clinch behind the bike sheds. The headmistress orders a crackdown on lesbianism, which an unmarried female teacher leads with relish. The twist is that the headmistress is herself cohabiting with a spinster who lost her sweetheart during the war.
But here’s the thing. This wasn’t a proper NT production but a read-through arranged as part of the Queer Theatre season. Actors seated in a semi-circle recited the text from scripts. Afterwards we were invited to the Lyttelton Rooms for a Q&A. Which is a bit weird. Why do gay people only get a read-through and a panel discussion as if their sexual orientation were some kind of social problem, like inflation or gun crime, that requires policy initiatives and brainstorming sessions?
One reason for staging these read-throughs is to inspire reviewers to clamour for a full production. Well, here’s a reviewer clamouring.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.