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Theatre Review: Semites @ The Bunker

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“Would you mind if I borrow your shoes?”. At the entrance of the Bunker theatre, the audience are greeted by a tall smiling man asking this very blunt question.

Image: Mark Senior

This is the conceiver and actor of the verbatim play Semites, Ben Nathan. Beside him his fellow actor, Lara Sawalha, is asking the same question. “Would you mind if I borrow your shoes?” As more people enter the space everyone gets asked this question, and more and more shoes get placed neatly at the back of the very minimalistic set to the tune of “New shoes” by Paolo Nutini.

With this question the two actors have, within the first minute of the audience entering, established the immersive style of the performance and managed to connect with everyone. The vibe in the room is great. Both Ben and Lara are moving around the space, talking to the audience, borrowing shoes or politely accepting if people want to keep them on, all in all creating a relaxed feeling of being among friends. 

This interaction morphs into something quite different later on in the play, as the audience are asked to be open about their opinions and cast judgement on what is being presented to them. People are asked to put up a card either red or green and hold it in the air representing a yes or a no. Suddenly there is a new tension in the room, which the actors tell us to notice.

In a time filled with keyboard warriors hiding behind their screens, being forced to make a stand: for, against or unable to decide, is provoking, exhilarating and this is all very well directed by Daniel Goldman. Actor Ben Nathan nudges the audience to confront conflicting ideas both around us and within ourselves, not vocally this time, but through silently holding up placards with questions throughout the speech of Lara Sawalha's character. The performance manages to swing between a friendly easy-going atmosphere, and making your inner voice ask: “What is everyone else thinking?”.

The material in Semites has been collected by Ben Nathan over three years through interviews and research in Israel and Palestine and formed into a play with the help of Tanushka Marah. The contributions come from a wide variety of different people. Through the piece you really feel the passion in this project, and the only thing missing perhaps a greater number of recollections from the women of Israel and Palestine as the interviews are mostly testimonies from men, with a few exceptions.

What the piece manages very well is to resonate with its audience, through all manner of devices: Like bringing the conflict right into England, through a paraphrased example performed in a northern (and very English) accent, that makes you consider how it would feel to have this conflict going on in your back garden.

Verbatim theatre is tricky, but when actors manage to successfully tell the tales word for word, with the same punctuation, rhythm and accent of the original people, it is also a very strong device to make people listen to someone else’s story, and Semites is definitely a play that lingers with you, and makes you wonder how life would be in someone else's shoes.

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