When the Bulbul Stopped Singing, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Siege mentality sheds vivid light on dark days of intifada

The conflict in Palestine must be the most-described, documented and despaired-over conflict today. When the Israeli army invaded Ramallah in 2002, we watched events unfold on the small screen from the safety of our homes. We frowned at the sight of houses destroyed and felt the fear and frustration of those trapped in a nightmare on the West Bank.

So why now should the dramatisation of one man's experience of that occupation make such compelling listening? What is it that brings those dark days to vivid life in the solo show When the Bulbul Stopped Singing, lighting up the words and observations of Raja Shehadeh, the lawyer and human rights activist?

His personal circumstances as a civilian living through this episode, trying desperately not to be defined or determined by it, give the production its real-life quality. His account is served well by a sensitive adaptation of Shehadeh's diary by the leading Scottish playwright David Greig, in association with the National Theatre.

The minimal staging by the Traverse Theatre's artistic director, Philip Howard, and a refreshingly contained performance by Christopher Simon playing Shehadeh turns what should, logically, work only as radio into thought-provoking theatre, its premiere being one of the Traverse's two in-house festival shows.

There's a sense of claustrophobia in the four skewed walls of Anthony MacIlwaine's box-set, within which Simon is confined, his room becoming a world as he shares Shehadeh's confidences and ponders the complexities of a situation escalating out of control. We're drawn into the difficulties of living under siege as human beings struggle to bury their dead, buy fresh bread and milk and retain some semblance of an ordinary existence.

This play is not about prejudices, or propaganda or public relations. No one pretends this sort of theatre is easy but in the packed and motionless audience, few could feel untouched by the poignant and profound drama inherent in the situations so elegantly conjured by Shehadeh's still, small voice of calm.

From a memory of happier times - his wedding, during the first intifada - he takes us through the trauma, tragedy, catastrophe, violence, brutality and stupidity that marks any such conflict.

In the face of the inconvenience and intrusion of a long curfew, the fear of what loved ones and friends may be enduring, the worry about what is to come, his tone is like that of the bulbul, deep and expressive. But, unlike the repetitive bird, his song is reasonable, quiet and unassuming as he shares his concerns about his life, his brother and his frail but indomitable mother who hopes to live to see the end of this tragic story. I hope she does.

To 28 August; call 0131 228 1404. Shehadeh's diary of Ramallah under siege is published by Profile Books

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