Bulbul 2012

- September 21, 2012

When a tunnel caves in between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, a professional smuggler finds himself trapped with a badly injured Palestinian boy, his new surf-board and his family goat. His despondency rises as an American journalist, an Egyptian diplomat and a young academic pass by in the darkness, all distracted from assisting by their own agendas. Boldly metaphoric, brilliantly surreal, devastatingly economical, and with moments of physical and verbal poetry that take unexpected flight in the gloom (the boy’s pain feels ‘like a bird brushing its wings inside my head’), Mags Chalcraft’s ‘Tunnel’ has the feel of a magical realist parable.

It’s by far and away the stand-out in this showcase of four 30-minute plays written in response to the Arab Spring, and solicited from all over the world as part of a competition organised by Sandpit Arts. But, performed by a high-quality cast including Nabil Elouahabi, Isobel Mascarenhas-Whitman and Brighton’s own Robert Cohen, the resulting selection is diverse, impressive, sometimes surprising and often inspiring.

Silva Semerciyan’s ‘Gather Ye Rosebuds’ starts clunkily but blooms, through sheer force of conviction, into a compelling exploration of cross-cultural friendship, cultural relativism, moral absolutes and, most richly, the plurality of womanhood. A Western doctor finds herself invited to an illegal cutting party by her Egyptian best friend, who is excitedly preparing for her daughter’s circumcision as if for her wedding. Interestingly the friends’ kitchen face-off often borrows the language of UN politics (this is tantamount to a ‘war crime’, the friend doesn’t have a ‘veto’). It’s best when serving up sharply funny insights into motherhood and ringing notes of rare certainty. Picking up the phone to report the circumcision and betray her friend, the doctor observes simply that: ‘[your daughter] deserves my courage’.

Moments of fond family bickering and tenderness glow golden in Yamina Bakiri’s ‘The Cost of Eggs’, in which a mother continues to lay a plate for her missing son. The smell of hard-boiled egg wafts queasily through the theatre as we discover what else the bombs and bread queues have ripped from this neighbourhood.

Peter Raynard’s ‘Waiting for Summer’, in which an amateur Western photographer visits a Syrian dissident in his burnt-out flat, offers a gentle corrective to anyone laughing at the familiar in these plays and thinking ‘oh, they’re just like us!’ While the terrified, ignorant Westerner surveys the scene with an inarticulate ‘Shit! Fuck!’, his host draws philosophically on the fruits of a painstakingly acquired library, rescuing ‘Waiting for Godot’ from amongst its charred remains. He isn’t able to take anything for granted, least of all art.

As the pair settle down to read Beckett’s opening lines, ‘There’s nothing to be done…’, you feel that Bulbul 2012 is a very real, well, something. Fingers crossed for a tour. In the meantime it was particularly exciting to hear these voices in Brighton which, for all its self-congratulatory openness, is about as culturally diverse as a Tory peer’s sock drawer.

Nightingale Theatre, 20 September 2012
Rating: ★★★★☆
Bella Todd




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