Shakespeare enchants Palestinian refugees

Donald Macintyre sees The Tempest performed in Aida camp
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The enjoyably chaotic atmosphere, said the director Jonathan Holmes just before the show started, was positively "Elizabethan".

True there were no mobile phones, a few of which trilled during the performance, in Shakespeare's time. But close your eyes and you could just about imagine that the children sucking ice lollies running up and down the steps of the Aida refugee camp's open-air auditorium, were behaving much as the Globe's younger groundlings would have done four centuries ago.

Given this was a young Palestinian audience presented with a straight Shakespearian text with only periodic Arabic synopses it was a tribute to the British Jericho House theatre's cast that so many stayed until the end.

And there was something irresistible about seeing The Tempest – its themes identified by advance publicity of "territorial conflict, displacement and political renewal"– in the shadow-literally-of the forbidding eight metre-high separation wall built by the Israeli military and looming over the camp.

Nevertheless there were times when the actors had their work cut out, with a (sometimes) frightening Caliban, drunken Trinculo and others making sallies into the audience to keep it engaged. At one point two Palestinian playgoers stood to greet each other with handshakes, just as Prospero was effecting his reconciliation (along with freedom, another appropriate theme of the play's conclusion) with his shipwrecked, usurping enemies.

For a second it was hard to tell who were the actors, who the spectators. Actress Ruth Lass, who as a beguiling Ariel, shushed the audience from time to time in character, at one point grabbing an apparently unfazed little girl to dance with her on stage, said after the performance: "In Shakespeare's times it would have been like this. You have to work hard to hold the audience. That's the nature of theatre."

It isn't often a British theatre company has its pre-London run – the play will open for a month at St. Giles' Church Cripplegate on 21 September – in the West Bank and the Israeli mixed Jewish Arab city of Haifa, where it will stage two performances tonight.

One shadow hung over the tour, however. Originally, the play was due to be performed in Jenin at the Freedom Theatre, whose inspirational director Juliano Mer-Khamis was the tour's main champion. The venue had to be dropped when Mr Mer-Khamis, the son of a Jewish mother and a Christian Arab father, was assassinated by masked gunmen in the city in April.

For Jonathan Holmes, The Tempest has a particular relevance to the Middle East. He is careful not to suggest any exact parallels. But without repeating a fashionable "post-colonial" reading of Caliban as the rebellious, and Ariel as the more collaborative victim of exploiters from outside, he believes the play, set somewhere between Western Europe and the Levant, "becomes a contest for territory between people of different cultures, and between people of the same culture. Shakespeare uses this to explore different systems and ideas of political resistance."

Nancy Ijara, 18, an Aida student at Al Quds University, said she didn't think it had a special relevance to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But she added: "I had some background because we read about William Shakespeare in high school, which helped me to understand what was going on... I liked the scene where Miranda and Ferdinand got married, and I liked the part where Prospero forgave all the people who had been against him."

The response of Hala al Yamani, a university teacher from Bethlehem was more nuanced. "It's very interesting to see a Shakespeare play in Bethlehem done by British people," she said. "I don't think it's political. It's about more than politics. It's about humanity."

Pointing out that the dispute between Prospero and his brother Antonio is at the heart of the play, she said that maybe there were some connections to the Middle East conflict,

But she added pointedly: "One [brother] has got the power and the other hasn't, but in the end he gives his brother his freedom. I think we will have to take ours."

Political or not, Walid Abusrour, a passionate Palestinian theatregoer who lives in the US but was brought up in Aida, followed the play in his own text and was inspired enough to deliver Hamlet's "To be or Not to Be" soliloquy from the stage as the audience left after Prospero's final monologue.

"I never thought I would see Shakespeare performed in English at Aida camp," Mr Abusrour said happily.