Review: Taha, Young Vic ‘Powerful on Palestinian Politics & Poetry’

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So, it’s recently been announced that the Young Vic’s Artistic Director, David Lan, is stepping down. He has been a trailblazer in platforming diverse voices in theatre, and Taha is another example of this as this co-production with Shubbak Festival is a lyrical story of the life of Palestinian poet, Taha Muhammad Ali, written and performed by Amer Hlehel.

It’s just Amer alone on stage, as Taha, in a 75-minute monologue that weaves a story for the audience on just how this warm, engaging, humble middle-aged man in front of them became one of the foremost Palestinian poets of the last thirty years against almost every conceivable obstacle.

For Taha was born into poverty in 1930s Saffuriya, Galilee, an area of the world that would be defined by betrayal, war and injustice his entire life – a life consumed by never-ending traumatic and devastating events that would destroy his country, rip apart his family, and see him cast out as a refugee.

Palestinian politics frame this story but Amer Hlehel is smart enough to know that it is the personal that connects us to drama, and so we fall into an engaging, witty and heart-breaking story of Taha’s life. We follow this young boy, compelled to take on adult responsibilities before his time, grow into a man, only for his heart to be broken by the loss of a woman he loves, but rescued by his readings of classical Arabic literature, American fiction, and English poetry. A form of self-teaching that would lead to Taha finally picking up his pen to write poetry for the first time in his forties – and never looking back.

Amer’s delivery is spot on. There are moments of real humour here, and right from the off, too. But injustice and pain is never far away. And the passages on the 1948 war, and the Israeli massacre at the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila camp in Lebanon in 1982, are gut-wrenching. Just as they should be.

I can’t say that it was all plain sailing – the blatant misogyny in a section where poetry and prose blended to compare the betrayal of Palestine to “a whore” stuck in the throat, but this must have been obvious to Amer Hlehel so credit to him for not trying to shy away from it.

But there is no avoiding the power of the finale as we witness Taha finally finding his feet as a poet on the London stage and we end with a reading of the extraordinary, Revenge – a poem so powerful, so extraordinary in its grace and humanity, that I found myself wiping tears from my eyes. That people can find peace and healing in even the most traumatic of circumstances… what a lesson to all of us. And that art can connect and awaken us like this… That never fails to blow me away either.

As both writer and actor, Amer Hlehel has created a gem here. It deserves a wide audience.

Taha is running at the Young Vic until July 15th. Following this, Taha will play at Summerhall in Edinburg 4-13 August as part of the Arab Arts Focus Edinburgh showcase.

Production images by David Sandison

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