23 August 2021
ONCE UPON A TIME IN NAZI OCCUPIED TUNISIA (Almeida Theatre) Review
In the early 1940s, Germany decided it wanted a slice of North Africa and tried to grab chunks of Libya, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia for itself. The story takes place in the Nazi-occupied Tunisia.
At the heart of it are two couples who are friends and hang out together (or at least did before the war): Victor, married to Loys, and Youssef, married to Faiza. The former are Jews, the latter are Arabs. Loys and Youssef also happen to be childhood friends (both I and the friend I was with agreed that there was more to it than that, but differed on what and when something may’ve happened, if anything).
The Nazis have taken Tunis, and Jews are being put into local camps. So happens that Victor is in one of them, guarded by Youssef of all people. There is also another guard, “little fella”, and the grand commander of it all nicknamed Grandma (because he knits to relax, as he explains).
As usual, I won’t get into the story so not to give away the twists. What I will say is that there is so much stuff crammed into the play, it loses the plot in some places, quite literally. At just under 3 hours, it’s further hindered by the pacing. It’s sloooooooooooooooow. Scenes and conversations drag on when there’s no need for them to. There was also a fair bit of mumbling, so much so, we thought something may’ve gone wrong with the mics (if there were any). The scene with Loys and Faiza on the beach at the start of the play was almost inaudible in places (granted, we were toward the back of the stalls, but it’s not a huge theatre). Whilst the play is punctuated by jokes, it tries too hard to be to its own comic relief. With a subject matter like Jews and Nazis, a drama is a good way to go. If not, and the idea is to laugh at violence, one better get it just right. My companion and I ended up talking about “Lieutenant of Inishmore” (which I now realise doesn’t actually have a proper review to it, so I’ll have to rectify this asap) because McDonagh has an amazing knack for it. Josh Azouz doesn’t (though he definitely tries).
Although subject matter was of some interest, I only really got tickets because of Adrian Edmondson (playing Grandma). I’d seen him before in “Neville’s Island” at the Duke Of York’s some years ago and thought he was brilliant. He is a comedic character here also: a dangerous commander prone to philosophising, clever one-liners, and home-cooked meals. And yet something was off for me. I wanted him to be saying his funny lines but be scary and menacing underneath. Instead, he is a caricature of a “baddie”, and all the menacing is direct and verbal rather than being a subtle undercurrent. Everyone else is kind of alright, Yasmin Paige (as Loys) I enjoyed the most out of the remaining 5, but they don’t feel like an ensemble. Whatever Loys and Youssef had or didn’t have, it’s talked about rather than “shown”. I found myself parsing the play almost entirely through my ears rather than feeling immersed in it.
The clash between Loys and Faiza feels like an afterthought because one simply must have some commentary on Jewish/Arab interactions. It was very random and, from my perspective, confused more than contributed. Furthermore, Victor, who is actually imprisoned in the camp, thereby foreshadowing the fates of so many others, is nothing more than a vehicle to push the story forward. He is more or less incidental to the plot: if he wasn’t there, things could’ve played out exactly the same. I found myself wanting him to matter more to the story.
As the play crawled toward the end, I found myself thinking about “Exit the King”, a staging of which I saw at the National three years ago almost to the day with the same friend sat next to me at Almeida. Ionesco’s play is absurdist theatre, and I found the play in line with the label. By the end of “Tunisia”, I started to wonder if this too was absurdist theatre, but I somehow missed the brief whilst reading the summary when booking the tickets. The lines Edmondson delivers toward the end (such as the roadtrip one referenced in the tagline for this post) got so ridiculous, my eyes couldn’t roll that far back into my head. There was also Chekhov’s pool, in lieu of a gun, so it was only a question of when, not if, someone was going to land in it.
I really really really wanted to like it, but just couldn’t. It’s like all the right elements were there, but they just couldn’t come together into a good story. Azouz’s writing felt like it would be more enjoyable with some creative editing. Eleanor Rhode’s direction was probably as good as anyone could’ve done with this one.
Cheapskate enjoyment value: £1 (because Edmondson should be seen on stage a bit more).