When the Bulbul Stopped Singing
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 9, 2005
Because, the United States has traditionally been Israel's ally rather than that of her Arab neighbors, a play like When the Bulbul Stopped Singing can feel a bit like hard medicine to an American audience: it's tough to be told that the "good guys" may sometimes be "bad guys."
But to just stop there is to miss the point of this quietly inflammatory solo theatre work. When the Bulbul Stopped Singing is narrated by a Palestinian—a real person, Raja Shehadeh, on whose memoir this play is based—but its perspective is humanist, not political: Palestinian leaders come in for just as much criticism as Israelis here. This is a play about living a productive, loving life despite the waste and wreckage surrounding one; a requiem for the lost souls and wanton destruction that the violent impulse locked inside mankind all too often brings about. "How like a game it all seemed," Raja muses sadly upon viewing the carnage of the 2002 attack on Ramallah, "a game planned by violent men with grand ambitions, a game played by infantile men who scrawl the name of their leader on a plastic lion."
When the Bulbul Stopped Singing covers a three-week period, in March and April of 2002, during which Israeli tanks rolled into (and over) much of the West Bank city of Ramallah, cornering Yasser Arafat in what looked and felt like (but was not) a martyr-like last stand for the beleaguered leader of the PLO. I remember watching the siege on television; I even remember one scene that Raja describes in vivid detail, something he too witnessed on TV: "...a woman standing on a pile of rubble, her hands flaring up in the air, crying out, 'Jarrafo el shuhada bil jaraafat,' 'they scooped the martyrs with the bulldozers'."
But the play is mostly not about combat or its aftermath; it's about a man trying to feel normal in abnormal times. Raja is trapped alone in his house when the siege of Ramallah begins, his wife, Penny, having gone to a conference in Cairo. Raja is a writer and a lawyer; once an activist, now all he wants, like most of humanity, is to live quietly and be left alone. He's a Christian, by the way, a detail that further reminds us that the "them" being invaded in Ramallah were not just a batch of Muslim terrorists.
For days, he waits fearfully for Israeli soldiers to invade his house, as they did his brother Samer's; to terrorize him with scary weapons and big talk and disrespect his possessions and values by wantonly tearing the place apart. With relief, he finishes his current book and emails it to his publisher, glad that this work, at least, is now safely out of the hands of any would-be enemy. He endures curfew and, during the rare hours when it is lifted, bleak trips to the town center to try to find supplies in stores filled with rotting merchandise. He talks on the phone endlessly to friends and family, checking in on one another. The noise outside is enormous and relentless.
That he gets through all of this—and presumably would get through it again, if and when he has to—is a tribute to human resiliency. That he does so without imploding, without hating, is a tribute to his own humanity.
When the fighting is over, he and his wife Penny (now safely back from Egypt) tour a makeshift exhibition of the carnage:
On the last wall was placed a giant photo collage showing damage to various homes and institutions in Ramallah. I scrutinized the pictures. These acts had not been committed in the heat of battle when a soldier is in fear of his life. The destruction was willful and premeditated. Young men with guns walked in to other people's homes in broad daylight and began breaking, smashing, and destroying... What had made them so full of rage and hatred?.... What will become of them, these young men, when they finally go home?
This is a story that everyone should hear, unsettling and un-traditionally theatrical though it may be. Christopher Simon is the remarkable actor bringing Raja Shehadeh to life in a performance that is riveting and loaded with intelligence; David Grieg is the playwright who dramatized the story, putting it before audiences who will likely otherwise never hear of this man; and Philip Howard, artistic director of the Scottish Traverse Theatre, is the director. To all of these men go our honor and gratitude. Anthony MacIlwaine, the designer, has created a fascinating environment for the piece, a stark white room that represents all the locations Raja takes us to, dominated by what looks like a gorgeous middle eastern carpet on the floor. This turns out to be a mirage made out of purplish-pink sandy material, stuff that Raja can draw maps in or, when the mood demands it, stamp on and destroy—a reminder of this tenuous thing that life always is.
As I listened to Raja describe conditions during the siege of Ramallah, I thought to myself how lucky Americans have always been, never (so far) having to live through an invasion of their homeland. How would we cope? Would we find the dignity and grace that Raja does to endure and transcend? As soon as the performance was over, a woman near the front of the audience jumped angrily out of her seat and shouted, to no one in particular, that when she came to the theatre she expected to be entertained. I don't know the lady, but I feel sad that she couldn't open her mind and heart to hear this play, let alone appreciate how privileged she is to be able to spend a peaceful hour or two in the company of strangers and get to hear—anything.