In review from the gallery: Once Upon A Time in Nazi-Occupied Tunisia
Stage and screen have long mined World War II for stories concerning the conflict between Allied Forces and the Nazis. Not to mention the horrifying, genocidal acts against the Jewish community that took place on European soil, in particular.
Rarely, though, have British writers taken the time to explore the religious, social and political discord that occurred against the backdrop of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Theatre.
The arrival of Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied Tunisia at the Almeida Theatre is thus a welcome one; it's an admirable undertaking, especially from a playwright with the sort of credentials you’d want in charge of the task of balancing the cross-cultural tension informing this tragicomedy about Jewish-Arab relations in North Africa.
Certainly as a Sephardi Jewish Brit whose “family came from Arab lands,” Josh Azouz had a point when he told the Financial Times: “There are not that many Jewish writers with Arab heritage who might be able to have a go at this story.”
"An overuse of “habibis” and a singalong does not make a North African story, but one has to give props to Jess Bernberg for her rich use of lighting that adds Maghrebi texture to Max Johns’ tiered, wooden set which only limits the actors’ movement and stage presence"
Unfortunately, this particular telling doesn’t quite achieve his intended parity of perspectives. Instead, it introduces several ideas about identity, nationhood, love and betrayal but ultimately serves up a bloated plot that seldom does the overall efforts justice.
The stage is set in 1943, four months into the Nazi occupation of Tunisia, a country already feeling the weight of decades under the oppressive control of the French. A Muslim couple Youssef (Ethan Kai) and Faiza (Laura Hanna) are childhood friends with Jewish couple Victor (Pierro Niel-Mee) and Loys (Yasmin Paige) and it's the plight of the latter pair that the play dedicates most of its 150-minute run time to.
The Jewish community have, of course, been increasingly terrorised by the “blonde” interlopers in Nazi uniforms and Victor has been imprisoned at a local camp where Youssef is forced to serve as his guard. Meanwhile, Loys has become the target of Grandma (Adrian Edmonson), a predatory SS commander and their tête-à-tête becomes the central set-piece pushing the plot forward.
While the early comedic attempts succumb to stilted delivery, the cast soon finds their groove as flashbacks help to contextualise their increasingly trepidatious circumstances. The most gripping moments are those which highlight the underlying tensions between this friendship group: Youssef must carry out a dehumanising act against Victor who he is buried up to his neck in the sand while conversation on a beach, between Faiza and Loys, goes from light and playful to uncomfortably strained as they discuss the murder of a Jewish boy.
Much later, a fraught debate between Loys, Youssef and Victor about escaping to “the land of milk and honey” heats up with prescient friction. “Does calling it a shithole make it easier to colonise?” Youssef fires back at Victor for describing Palestine in such disparaging terms.
But these scenes are too short and few with not nearly enough dialogue or character development with Youssef and Faiza to put their perspective on an equal standing. Is Faiza’s blonde bombshell look a sign of assimilation? What exactly has it been like for Tunisians under French rule that has Youssef aligning with these anti-Semitic fascists despite their unsubtle discrimination against his Jewish neighbours?
These questions remain peripheral in a play too busy rehashing well-worn hostilities between Nazis and Jews. Edmonson’s nifty ability to switch between charming wit and quiet threat is entertaining against Paige’s plucky Loys, but this representation of the banality of evil is nothing new and a significant narrative chunk is dedicated to it.
By retreading on Nazi territory, Azouz avoids igniting more meaningful interrogation into the tribal differences between the actual Tunisian-born characters. The decision to use the actors’ own English accents removes the audience even more from this cultural conversation. An overuse of “habibis” and a singalong does not a North African story make, but one has to give props to Jess Bernberg for her rich use of lighting that adds Maghrebi texture to Max Johns’ tiered, wooden set which only limits the actors’ movement and stage presence.
There is so much potential in a story like Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied Tunisia to engage with current Jewish and Arab relations with a throughline to the past. The bones are there, as are capable enough actors to deliver it but by spending too much time on Nazis and confining Arabs to the margins, Azouz has obscured a much-needed lens on this underexplored passage in Second World War history.
Hanna Flint is a freelance film and TV critic, writer and interviewer who writes for The Guardian, Total Film, Time Out, Syfy, Yahoo Movies, SyFy and other international outlets.
Follow her here: @HannaFlint