'Fireworks' review or 'Close your eyes and count to ten.'

Fireworks, Dalia Taha (translated by Clem Naylor)
Royal Court Theatre, 20th February 2015

Saleh Bakri (Khalid) and Shakira Riddell- Morales (Lubna) in Fireworks at the Royal Court Theatre. [Helen Maybanks]

What happens to the idea of make-believe when you are living through an unbelievable and endless war in Palestine? What happens to your imagination when your life is restricted to just four walls, your home, and your visual horizons have been shut down? And how do you grow up as a kid, and test your boundaries, when your childhood is hemmed in by war? Dalia Taha’s play ‘Fireworks’ poses these complicated and disturbing questions yet never feels burdened by its lines of enquiry. This is an important and forceful play, skilfully bound up in a nimble, gentle and moving piece of theatre.

Director Richard Twyman and designer Lizzie Clachlan have created a claustrophobic space, which also manages to be lively and richly symbolic. The setting is an apartment block in Palestine, where 11 year old Lubna (Eden Nathenson, gentle but defiant) and 12 year old Khalil (George Karageorgis, heart-breakingly naive) live with their respective parents. Wires snake across the low ceiling, bare bulbs dangling in chaotic fashion. The walls are painted in faded blue and the metal fixtures bleed with rust. This is a world so cramped and contained that, when young girl Lubna fears that her neighbours might be fleeing, her father leans his head against the wall for confirmation.

It sounds like a potentially flat playing space but Richard Twyman, associate director at The Court, has infused his production with some bold dramatic flourishes. The production feels light on its feet and neatly complements writer Taha’s vibrant script, which contains natural flurries of dialogue, alongside elegant sparks of lyricism. At the beginning, we see Khalil (George Karaageorgis) dressed in a bright clown costume, frozen on stage in stark white light. He looks trapped in that clown suit and the bold colours feel grotesque. Pictures and posters of dead family members, ‘martyred’ in the recent spate of bombings, hang from the walls. The portraits are framed by blue skies with fluffy clouds or streaked with neon colours. Real-life and after-life, harsh truths and strained faith, mingle awkwardly together.

The show is led by two kids who live next door to each other and tentatively become friends, as bombs drop outside. But whilst Taha’s play is told largely through the children’s eyes, it never feels naive or patronising. Instead, Taha thoughtfully interrogates the way that war warps the imagination of both the young and old; how the children grow up too soon and the parents, desperate to protect their children from the brutal reality outside, sometimes find themselves trapped in a make-believe world of their own construction.

Khalil and Lubna play together and every fantasy is tinged with death. It’s as if the outside is trying to creep into all their indoor games. The two children play soldiers and squabble over who gets to hold the gun. They play with their ‘kitten’, who is actually a dead pigeon. They imagine the pigeon has been maimed and every playful riff tumbles into a battle scenario, limbs blasted and blood spilling.

What is really interesting, though, is the way the parents are also drawn into this mutated world of make-believe. Lubna’s father Khalid (Saleh Bakri) is so keen to protect his daughter that he refers to the bombs as ‘fireworks’ and assures her that the ‘magic’ tape on their windows will protect them. Her mother Nahla (Sirine Saba) is so consumed by grief, mourning her dead son, that she floats about in a half-dream world, desperate to commune with the dead. Khalil’s mum Samar (Shereen Martin) is so anxious to take care of her son that she hasn’t noticed he is becoming a man. At one point, Khalil and Samar play-act Ninja turtles together and the difference in their approach, as Samar crawls about, smiling, in a silly rucksack and son Khalil shoots her dead, says all you need to know about the gulf between these two generations and the way in which they choose to approach life in war-torn Palestine.

In a final scene, neon strip lights frame the stage space and Lubna stands in front of the stage and delivers a monologue. She talks about life in Palestine but her speech is lyrical and soft, like a gentle nursery rhyme. The same image is visited repeatedly, about a growing cluster of Palestinian children – all exposed to death – who must now sleep with their eyes closed. As Lubna talks about keeping her eyes open, she stands close to the audience and beyond the realm of make-believe, gently urging us all to open our eyes to the real-life tragedy unfolding in Palestine.


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