UN makes a drama out of Gaza crisis

Israel’s attack on an aid warehouse that was a lifeline for Palestinians has been powerfully reconstructed for the stage. But such controversial material is leaving audiences divided. Donald Macintyre reports

Her face larger than life on the big screen at the back of the stage, Jodie Clarke explains just what was happening at her workplace on 15 January 2009, and how the military she was constantly in touch with were insisting it was not. “My dear, I am standing in my building,” she says she told the person at the other end of the phone. “It is collapsing around me. There is a huge fire. You are hitting the UN compound.”

The Australian warehouse manager goes on calmly to describe how she crawled under the wheels of a fuel truck to push away a burning a “softball-sized” chunk of white phosphorus that would have caused a devastatingly lethal explosion if it had ignited the vehicle.

Matter of fact as it is, Ms Clarke’s account is powerfully dramatic. Appropriately so, since it is now the centrepiece of what by any standards is one of the most unusual dramas to be staged in English in 2009. All the more so since the author, sole actor and director, is Chris Gunness, the chief spokesman for the UN Relief and Works Agency. And especially so given the unwieldily titled but highly watchable Building Understanding: Epitaph of a Dead Warehouse is intended for Israeli audiences, whose military was responsible for the artillery bombardment of UNRWA headquarters in central Gaza City during the last week of the invasion.

Provocative dramaturgy on the fringe-theatre circuit may seem rather beyond the remit of a UN press officer, however senior. But Mr Gunness decided last spring that this was the best medium with which to engage the Israeli public, among whom, as the body responsible for the welfare of almost a million of Gaza’s refugees, his employer UNRWA is, to put it mildly, far from universally popular, on the impact of Operation Cast Lead.

Mr Gunness, a Briton and one-time BBC correspondent turned diplomat, became internationally well-known during last winter’s war as he took to the airwaves and regularly protested about UN installations in Gaza, including the warehouse, coming under fire from the Israeli Defence Forces.

It was on the strength of one such appearance on a satellite channel that Tami Berger from Bezalel, Israel’s most venerable art school, invited him to take part in a one-day event on “storage-space” ranging from the human womb to a TV network’s archive. Mr Gunness thought of the UNRWA warehouse and with the backing of his bosses and the help of his Israeli assistant, Yael Azgad, sat down and wrote Epitaph.

On stage throughout the 40-minute performance, Mr Gunness plays – however improbably – the eponymous warehouse, announcing early on that he is “the victim of an excruciatingly painful fire that burned me down”. Most of the goods coming into Gaza, including food, medicine, basic health items and other humanitarian supplies “pass through me”, the warehouse explains, adding, “I am a lifeline to a society behind bars”.

Unsurprisingly, the play has generated controversy, especially since Jewish international judge Richard Goldstone’s UN-commissioned report on the Gaza operation, which excoriated the attack on the compound and triggered outrage through much of Israel; so much so that a planned performance at Tel Aviv’s Hasimta theatre last week, which was to have been followed by a panel discussion with a Israeli government representative, was cancelled. There is no sign that the theatre’s creative staff were responsible for the axing. The theatre director, Avi Gibson Bar El, referred enquiries this week to the Tel Aviv muncipality, which in turn refused two requests for comment.

Epitaph was similarly pulled – this time at the last minute – from Acre’s al Laz theatre, back in August. Mony Yousef, who runs the city’s arts festival who saw then recommended the play to the theatre, broke the news to Mr Gunness after he had arrived in the northern Israeli city to set up. Asked about the sudden U-turn, Mr Yousef suggested, somewhat bizzarely, that the problem was, in fact, that the play had not been provocative enough. “It was not theatre, it was not very radical,” he insisted. “There was no pressure.”

So far, therefore, Mr Gunness has been able to stage his play only twice for the Israeli audiences for whom it is intended. In Tel Aviv, 20 people (out of an audience of more than 100) walked out early on. One man rose to his feet halfway through the performance to denounce what he saw as the drama’s frontal onslaught on Israel’s military.

Mr Gunness defused the interruption by promising to discuss his concerns. At the end, he walked down to the man’s seat and pointed out that the show was not saying the bombardment was deliberate, or that it was a war crime. The man was apparently placated but Mr Gunness conceived the idea that performances should from then on feature a chair for audience members to come up on stage and engage in debate if they wanted.

The other performance was for a class at Sapir College in Sderot, the western Negev town which has borne the brunt of Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza. Although the students, including former soldiers, were on an elective course studying Palestinian refugees – and therefore more familiar with UNRWA’s work than the average Israeli – they were initially sceptical. “There was a lot of ‘Yes, but’,” said lecturer Maya Rosenfeld. “But in the end I think the whole idea of watching an UNRWA official doing this impressed them.”

For Mr Gunness, the show is partly about repairing the image of the UN, once famously dismissed as “Oom Schmoom” by Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion. Israelis who dislike the UN may sometimes scrawl “Unwanted Nobodies” on its cars. Mr Gunness says the UN is “expected to stay put when there is danger and conflict and it does”. He believes that audiences who engage with Epitaph find that “our values are ones that a lot of Israelis identify with, including giving help to those who need it most”.

But was the highly sensitive subject of the Gaza War the best subject to begin this process of engagement and image building? “If I contact Israelis-journalists and others about other things we do, development and so on, they understandably glaze over; but if I say look, there’s a play with a pint-sized Australian woman from UNRWA who risked her life to stop an even worse conflagration in the middle of the war, they sit up and listen.”

Pointing out that Israel’s Foreign Ministry had encouraged UNRWA to engage more with the Israeli public, he adds: “Like Daniel in the biblical den, I’m ready to take this to the most leonine audiences anywhere in Israel.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
peopleHere's what Stephen Fry would say
News
i100
Sport
Serena Williams holds the Australian Open title
sportAustralia Open 2015 final report
Sport
footballLive: All the latest from today's Premier League matches
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Recruitment Genius: Transport Administrator / Planner

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Tax Associate - London

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - HIGHEST QUALITY INTERNATIONAL FIRM - A...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Law Costs - London City

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - EXCELLENT FIRM - We have an outstandin...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee