Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied Tunisia review, Almeida Theatre: Adrian Edmondson’s eccentric steals the show

Josh Azouz’s play is deeply shocking and oddly elating

Paul Taylor
Friday 27 August 2021 17:17
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<p>Adrian Edmondson as ‘Grandma’ in the darkly comic historical drama</p>

Adrian Edmondson as ‘Grandma’ in the darkly comic historical drama

It’s as if the beloved wartime movie Casablanca (1942) has been hijacked and refashioned by a consortium of gifted wackos. Watching Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied Tunisia is like looking at similar material through a pane of crazed glass, with the Nazi yen for “Lebensraum” (living space) taking the Reich into the desert regions of North Africa and an encounter with different kinds of resistance fighters. The effect is at once deeply shocking and oddly elating. Josh Azouz’s piece goes for broke: it draws on energies that the director, Eleanor Rhode, and her wonderfully on-song company of actors approach in a spirit of responsibly impious revelry.

The darkly comic historical drama begins with a “comfort break” of sorts. A very discomfiting one. The Nazis order young North African Youssef (Ethan Kai) to pee down onto the face of Victor (Pierro Niel-Mee), a Jewish man who has been buried in sand and almost burned alive in the hot sun. Youssef is desperate with apologies but knows he has to go ahead. Victor is an old friend and Youssef is a softie really, but he is collaborating with the regime because he has his peacetime job as a sommelier to think about and his future.

The production is superbly designed. A stack of wooden crates are flapped open to suggest various, sometimes tiled interiors and the changing mood of the desert is captured on a large wafer disc that shifts in colour from a diluted pistachio green to a fiery copper. The “plot” – which involves the fact Victor and Youssef are sweet on each other’s wives – is ingeniously elaborate but the theme is profoundly simple. Once Upon a Time is an argument against essentialism – the fatal belief, say, that you can sum up a Jewish person by slapping a yellow star on him or her. The creed tends to cut both ways; it works on an equal opportunities basis. Accordingly, the play finesses this idea by using characters who veer from stereotype in multiple non-conforming ways.

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