Death (and Love) in Gaza

BATS Theatre, Wellington

25/07/2006 - 05/08/2006

Production Details

Written by Paul Maunder
Dramaturge: David O’Donnell
Produced by Katrina Baylis

Video clips and other audio-visual content by Emma Riordan
Sound effects by Paddy Bleakley
Set by Kate Logan
Lighting by Edward Goode

In 2003, Rachel Corrie, a twenty three year old American, went to Palestine to work with local communities. While trying to protect a Palestinian family’s home from demolition, Rachel was crushed and killed by an Israeli Army bulldozer.

The show is based on Rachel’s own writings, accounts from other activists and reports of the situation in Palestine. This is cutting-edge, yet moving political theatre that welcomes a new generation of people with ‘fire in their belly.’

Featuring Charlie Bleakley, Palestinian Katrina Baylis and ex-pat American actor Elizabeth Marshall.

Theatre ,

Play part of pro-Palestine movement

Review by Grant Brookes 19th Aug 2006

The great Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht believed that theatre should not pacify the audience by presenting a self-contained story with all the conflicts resolved by the end.

Instead, said Brecht, a play should be open-ended, energising the audience to go and make their own ending to the story in the real world after the action on stage has finished.

Few New Zealand plays have expressed these aims as well as Death (and Love) in Gaza, which had its world premiere at Wellington’s BATS theatre last month.

Written and directed by respected cultural activist Paul Maunder, the play is loosely based on the true story of Rachel Corrie, a 23 year-old American who was run over and killed by an Israeli army bulldozer in 2003 while trying to stop the demolition of Palestinian homes.

Even before the play begins, the usual boundary between action on stage and events in the real world is punctured.

As we queued in the foyer waiting for the doors to open, a recorded message announced that "this checkpoint is closed until further notice".

Two people dressed as soldiers appeared, motioning us out the front door and down the side of the theatre, past rubble, hurricane wire and graffiti scrawled in Arabic, to another "checkpoint".

The person in front of me, a woman of Middle Eastern descent, was pulled aside for "questioning", while I (a Pakeha European) was waved through to take my seat.

The play itself focuses on a young American activist called Ruth.

Ruth’s story is told through a series of episodes, each one announced by a caption on a flip-chart, starting with her death and then skipping back to her arrival in Gaza.

Superb acting brought the believable characters to life.

Ruth, the daughter of a business executive with family connections to US senators, has rejected many of the middle class values she was brought up with. She expresses her rejection forcefully – "Fuck suburbia. Fuck America. Fuck George Bush."

But she still has elements of a middle class American outlook.

Poignantly, she emails her mother to say she’s safe enough in Gaza because the Israelis wouldn’t kill an American. She believes that underneath everything, people are all like her. Above all, she believes in individual action.

But her privileged upbringing and education also enable her to express her opposition to Israeli atrocities powerfully and eloquently.

Gerd, a working class son from Germany who describes himself as "very ordinary", came to Gaza after getting involved in the European anti-capitalist movement.

The growing love between Ruth and Gerd is moving. As the audience gets to know each of them, they get to know each other.

Multimedia effects add to the story. The sound and music, including Palestinian songs of resistance, heighten the drama.

Short film clips help set the atmosphere. Through these, the play also shows the real heroes of Gaza – the Palestinian people in their collective acts of resistance.

Death (and Love) in Gaza explains the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the simple story of a key.

In 1948, in an act of mass ethnic cleansing, 750,000 Palestinians were forced from their homes.

Elderly Palestinian woman Mrs Rhateb, the head of Ruth’s host family and the other main character in the play, explains: "See this key. It is very big. It is the key of our house in Jerusalem. I can remember leaving the house with a machine gun on my back, a foreign voice told me that I could return in two weeks, but it has been a lifetime.

"Israel is the state built on lies, a state with a land that will never be theirs. My house remains in my mind and body and will be carried on to my children, and theirs after that."

Ruth discovers how the continued suppression of the Palestinians 58 years on is the "end result of US foreign policy". She also explains, "Zionism and the Jewish people are two different categories. So no, we are not anti-Semitic. But the Israeli state… must be judged. And fought."

In the last episode of the play the story returns to where it began, Ruth’s death. As Gerd reads his factual report on the incident, Ruth is seen re-enacting earlier snippets, showing how she lives on in his – and our – memory.

The night I saw Death (and Love) in Gaza, it played to a packed house – testament that growing numbers of people want to know about and support the Palestinian struggle.

In one episode, Gerd and Ruth turn to address the audience directly. Gerd gives a presentation on the International Solidarity Movement, involving us in the story as if we were participants in a public rally, while Ruth circulates among the audience handing out flyers.

The flyers explain how to get involved in the resistance – including information on the Wellington Palestine Group, the main organisation behind the protests taking place in the capital against Israel’s bombing of Lebanon.

None of the conflicts in the story are resolved at the end of the play. The story of what Ruth (or the real-life Rachel Corrie) lived and died for does not yet have an ending. It’s still being added to by the movement they were part of.

This play is part of that movement, too. It opens in Christchurch at the Free Theatre in the Arts Centre on September 2. After that it will travel to Auckland and then on to other centres. Go and see it.


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Political engagement

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 29th Jul 2006

Critics love to reiterate, says English playwright David Hare, the uninteresting idea that theatre depends on conflict. He believes it depends on engagement – engagement between the action on stage and the audience which attends. Lectures and plays, he asserts, are alike in relying for their true vitality on the richness of the interaction between the performance itself and the thoughts and feelings created by the unspoken reaction in the room.

Paul Maunder’s Death (and love) in Gaza is both lecture and play and because of its burning topicality and the sincerity of the acting the unspoken reaction in the Bats auditorium on the opening night was indicated by the physical stillness of – and the close attention paid by – a clearly engaged audience.

It could also be described as a piece of agitprop theatre. Its political aim is expressed in the programme: to awaken and/or sustain the realisation that people in the developed world need to act in solidarity with communities on the receiving end of US, Israeli and Western foreign policy. Near the start of this 80-minute play during a brief scene which takes place at a political meeting the audience is handed a leaflet urging them to join the International Solidarity Movement and, rather surprisingly, with details about the Wellington Palestine Group.

Death (and love) in Gaza was inspired by the true story of a young American woman, Rachel Corrie, an internationalist, who went to Palestine to help in some way. She was killed in 2003 by an Israeli bulldozer when she was trying to prevent a house from being demolished.

In the play we follow a young woman, Ruth, from the day she arrives in Gaza and we learn how she learns to cope with bullets, violence, the hospitality and kindness of ordinary people, her attraction to her co-worker Gerd, a young German, and her seething anger at the end result of US foreign policy.

Despite a reiterated denunciation of George Bush, US foreign policy and the Western powers the play is remarkably restrained. The brief filmed sequences make no attempt to rival what we see on our TV screens most nights and are the more forceful for that. The growing love between Gerd and Ruth is not sentimentalized, neither is her despair when she questions her belief in the essential goodness of mankind, nor is her death.

Elizabeth Marshall as Ruth and Charlie Bleakley as Gerd gently and subtly underplay their roles thus tempering the political message by creating believable idealistic people rather than mouthpieces and they are well supported by Katrina Baylis as Mrs Rhateb, a kindly Palestinian woman who rather unnecessarily turns Brechtian-like notices telling us what each scene is about.


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Compelling authenticity

Review by John Smythe 25th Jul 2006

Subtitled Homage to a young activist, Paul Maunder’s Death (and Love) in Gaza has evolved from the writings of Rachel Corrie, accounts by other Internationalists and the historical record of "occupation and Palestinian oppression".

Rachel Corrie was killed, in 2003, by an Israeli bulldozer when she tried to stop the demolition of a house owned by a physician who was known to the young internationalists supporting communities in Palestine (a project for which she was a catalyst).

Thankfully this play and production manage not to be a maudlin tribute that values the life of one young American, who chose to put herself in harm’s way, above the lives of the countless civilians who – while they may resist, protest and hope – have nowhere else to go and cannot be held responsible for the violent actions of the righteous militants (on both sides) who continue to commit atrocities in the name of their God.

Rather, the story of Rachel serves to humanise the insane self-perpetuating inhumanity of contemporary Middle East history by bringing us into the conflict at a level we can easily relate to. It has to be added, however, that Maunder’s play is clearly pro-Palestine and anti Zionist Israel. And right now, Israel’s disproportionate response to Hezbollah’s appalling actions, and the consequent civilian toll we hear of daily in Lebanon, can only add credibility to his editorial position.

The play starts with the facts leading up to and including Ruth’s death, then goes back to her arrival in Gaza and follows her story inexorably through to its predetermined conclusion. Thus, while subjective engagement is inevitable, we are also able to objectively observe the progression of events. Her idealism is simultaneously a beacon to follow and her fatal flaw.

Palestinian Katrina Baylis (also the producer), in the role of Mrs Rhateb, acts as a sort of chorus, flipping scene-title cards, keening, commenting and providing the cultural context for the activities of two middle class, idealistic, relative innocents abroad: Gerd from Germany (Charlie Bleakley) and Ruth (American expatriate, Elizabeth Marshall). Bleakly also makes a brief appearance as the physician, Mutah.

Maunder’s experience and skill as a theatre practitioner, and his commitment to a greater purpose (supported by David O’Donnell as dramaturge), is manifest in that these three actors are able to convincingly evoke an historical context and subjective experience most of us will never confront – nor wish to confront – first-hand.

Their inescapable reality is also created through video clips and other audio-visual content (Emma Riordan), visceral sound effects (Paddy Bleakley), and a set that ingeniously captures ancient, modern and a permanent sense of crumbling impermanence (Kate Logan), lit by Edward Goode.

Each actor inhabits their role at a depth that denotes thorough immersion in, and commitment to, the story content at human, social and political levels. There is nothing showy or tricky in the presentation. Its authenticity is all that’s needed to make it compelling.

Proof that the work is sound comes with a long scene where the young and illicit lovers (they are breaking the rules) tell each other the stories of their lives and how they come to be here. Dramaturgically this also breaks the rules, by leaving exposition to the ‘third act’. Yet it works because we care about them by now, we share each character’s interest in the other, and we welcome this simple ritual of growing human relationships amid the prevailing ‘rule’ of senseless destruction.

If, like me, you despair at each day’s news from the Middle East, Death (and Love) in Gaza at least offers that strange sense of reassurance that comes from a shared recognition of what’s happening in the world.

When theatre responds to world events like this, it is fulfilling a core purpose. Yet again we must thank BATS for being able to pick up such work much faster, it seems, than the mainstream theatres which are obliged, through the funding mechanism, to plan their seasons nearly two years in advance.


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