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Scenes from 68* Years review at Arcola Theatre, London – ‘wickedly funny and heartbreaking’

Taghrid Choucair in Scenes from 68* Years at Arcola Theatre, London. Photo: Ellie Kurtz Taghrid Choucair in Scenes from 68* Years at Arcola Theatre, London. Photo: Ellie Kurtz
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A student waits for her English cousin to come online. A celebratory picnic is overshadowed by soldiers. A taxi driver is offered danger money to take a fare to Nazareth. A mother is not allowed to accompany her boy when he visits his father. A soldier asks to be humiliated by a sex worker.

With a rich sketch show format, Hannah Khalil’s impressive play, Scenes from 68* Years, takes snapshots of life in Palestine, with Arab and Israeli perspectives presented with grounded precision and humour. Although bombings, protest and soldiers proliferate the text, these are everyday occurrences, like getting ready for school, running a business, having a family meal. Gags about queuing and bureaucracy recur with laughable regularity. Characters and events criss-cross the scenes, making the stage bustle.

Although Palestinian actress Maisa Abd Elhadi joins the cast for one strand of scenes via Skype, Western analogues are found for many scenarios. So Peter Polycarpou’s shopkeeper has an East End patter, and a conversation about an Oxford University application take place at any middle class dinner table, until the father laments living in a ‘climate of fear’.

Director Chris White brings a strong non-literal stage language to the Arcola studio, with scarce props treasured and recast. Paul Burgess’ design eschews familiar images of bomb sites and rubble of the Gaza Strip for simple painted furniture, laptops, old radios, an embroidered blanket – giving this exceptional production a temporary, improvisatory quality which spans and suggests the full 68 years since the creation of Israel in 1948.

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Hannah Khalil’s sketches from Palestine are wickedly funny and heartbreaking