Checkpoint Zero isn't all about two star-crossed lovers who take themselves that little bit too seriously. It's also about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yawn! It's all very well to write about such things from this more-than-safe distance. It's just that it has so little impact. Of course, it's a good thing if it provokes thought, questions and debate. It did. I can vouch for it. But, in the end, despite the substantial historical banquet that the subject is, I was left feeling unsatiated. Here were a bunch of near-caricatures and stereotypes, playing-out cliches.
Still, it was an interesting situation. There was I, a Jewishly-identifying agnostic bleeding-heart socialist, sitting next to my (questioning) Christian Syrian friend. A few seats down was another Jewish reviewer. In front, VIPs from the Arabic community, sitting on their reserved seats; among them the seemingly reasonable Keyser Trad and quite mad, if colourful, Sheik Al-Hilaly. All this and I barely squirmed.
Admittedly, as soon as I saw the prison-like facade, front of stage, I figured I was in for some confronting, contentious material. Turned out I was dead wrong; more's the pity. For while it assumed a tough posture and the pretence of brave theatre, at heart it had nonesuch. Indeed, it was a remarkably soulless piece, given the potential. It's hard to imagine how one can so consummately turn the high drama evident in reality into, relatively speaking, consumable confectionery.
Am I being too hard on it? Possibly.
So, what was good? All-in-all the performances, set and lighting, which deserves to be 'specially acknowledged. Music, too, has been, on the whole, integrated reasonably well; some being quite beautiful.
In short, Don Mamouni has done a laudable job in energising and cultivating his cast and rather less well in co-conceiving (with Assad Abdi) a confusing, uneven, bumpy narrative; a veritable bowl of chopped liver.
The dumbass Israeli checkpoint Charlie seemed to draw more on the verifiable canon fodder more readily associated with US Forces. His commander was better, a classic macho hardarse, bending the rules to intimidate his own and the other. Both were played well. War might be hell and only an ostrich could argue the enemy is beaten by any means other than killing the men and raping the women, but the week-long abuse of a 13-year-old Palestinian stowaway was, to paraphrase my friend Eyad, taking the scenario implausibly far. It could happen. It probably has, to a lesser, or greater, extent. But is it typical and therefore redolent of the situation? And if it isn't intended to be (a defensive clause that would surely be the last refuge of a dramatist scoundrel), why portray it thus? It just didn't have that Colgate ring.
Similarly, the fatal attraction between sexy Sivan, another Israeli soldier, and 'Pally-boy' electronic engineer, Hani, while possible, seemed improbable, if not impossible, even insofar as it went. Again, I found myself reaching for the Colgate, but was strangled by what I found. Speaking of strangled, amusing as the scene in the bureaucrat's office was, why the noose on the Palestinian woman? Was this an oh-so-subtle (not) way of pointing to the 'can't win' status of this side of the equation? Perhaps. But it just seemed bizarre and distracting.
Perhaps the problem with this play, or part of it, lies in massive over-promise, it being promulgated thus: 'Checkpoint Zero is a story of the effects of conflict on current generations and the dilemmas involved in inheriting wounds from the past. This play shatters the perceptions of one of the world’s longest lasting conflicts.' It does nothing of the sort. It has none of the pathos implied; rather, bathos. By rights, it should've shocked, but it schlocked.
The play's mates also ask: 'Have you ever been involved in something that takes you over, against your own good judgement? Even though you know it’s dangerous, you keep going as if that something has got its own self-destructive momentum and you’re powerless to stop it. That’s how it was with her: Sivan. We were at Checkpoint Zero, acting like we were somewhere else entirely'. It's from the play, but it could be about the play. It's not quite a nakba, but it's too close for comfort. It's, mercifully, not a polemic; doing some justice and showing some degree of empathy for Israelis & Jews. It acknowledges the pain and subjugation I think most Jews and all fairminded ones would and do acknowledge as being imposed on Palestinians, the courage of the last, but not the anything-but-heroic, homicidal elements that ruin the prospect and are the outright enemy of peace.
If there's one thing Israelis and Palestinians can agree on, it's the inadequacy of this play. So, maybe it's more important than I think. Perhaps it's the roadmap to peace. But it doesn't make me want to meet the makers. I'd like to come out fighting for this play. But, I fear, I again find myself a refusnik.
All of that said, I reserve unreserved (if you'll allow it) praise, with some reservation, for Dritan Arbana, Silvia Entcheva, Eddie Khalil, Olivia Stambouliah, Cassandra Swaby & Charles Billeh, in, approximately, that order. Arbana, for mine, as the Israeli corporal, was the most complete characterisation. Khalil played a weakminded private very smartly indeed. Entcheva and Stambouliah were especially notable for their vocal & physical versatility, as well as dexterity: it's no mean feat changing accents and mannerisms, scene-to-scene, and keeping it convincing. Swaby seemed a little self-conscious, at times. Billeh's uni student played so earnestly and humourlessly my suspended disbelief came crashing down, without going anywhere near knocking off my socks.
A note for the dynamic duo of writers: comparing Israeli policy and action, let alone specifically Jewish initiatives, to Hitler's, is unoriginal, hackneyed, cheap and highly questionable, in every sense. Not to mention deeply, deeply offensive. Worst of all, dramatically, it utterly fails to be provocative. Oops! Pardon me! Is that my bias showing? (I'll be disappointed if someone doesn't observe so and deliriously happy if reps from all sides do.) I don't think so. Just my humanity.
Eyad & I talked about it all the way home. For that, but not so very much more, I am thankful.
Sidetrack Performance Group
Venue: Sidetrack Shed Theatre, 142 Addison Rd, Marrickville
Season: 28th July - 24th August
Times: Wed-Sat 8pm, Sun 5pm, 11am matinee 28th July - 5th August
Tickets: $24 Full/$15 Conc.