Returning to Haifa review at Finborough Theatre, London – ‘stirs the senses’
The English language stage adaptation of Ghassan Kanafani’s Returning to Haifa had a troubled birth. First commissioned by the Public Theater in New York, it was subsequently abandoned thanks to disquiet amongst board members. Its eventual world premiere at the Finborough Theatre, directed by Caitlin McLeod, stirs the senses even whilst lacking clarity.
Said (Ammar Haj Ahmad) and Safiyya (Myriam Acharki) decide to visit the home in Haifa they were forced to flee in 1948. The current occupant is an elderly Jewish lady, Miriam (Marlene Sidaway) and her grown son, Dov (Ethan Kai). It soon turns out it’s not only the property the Palestinian couple can lay a claim to.
Set designer Rosie Elnile (winner of The Stage Debut Award) has reconfigured the space in-the-round, with the audience seated within the same homely living room as the characters. Saturated by ochre, orange and dark peach, the setting pulses with claustrophobic heat.
Kanafani’s story presents a nuanced and balanced view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, drawing attention to the death of Miriam’s father in Auschwitz along with the plight of Said and Safiyya. Ismail Khalidi and Naomi Wallace’s adaptation never quite achieves the complexity and delicacy it strives for, feeling overly expository in some parts and hard to follow in others.
Instead, McLeod’s production captures some of the emotion of the situation. The frustration of participating in futile and circular arguments, and – through Acharki’s intense silences – the sorrow of being forced to witness a situation engineered by forces out of your control.
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