The vivid story of the turbulent life of the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali is recounted to an intimate audience within Taha.
A one-man show written by and starring Amer Hlelel, Taha evokes a dynamic range of feelings throughout its runtime. Hlelel’s bright eyes dart around the room, engaging with each and every member of the audience. We all laugh with him as he light-heartedly reminisces with relatable ‘boy-meets-girl’ anecdotes, and feel our eyes growing damp as he describes his experiences of loss, and the different stages of grief.
I was so invested within the new world that had been created within that small auditorium that I did not want to believe that the play had finished
Initially daunted by the one-man cast – and sceptical of Hlelel’s ability to single-handedly keep me captivated for one-hour-and-fifteen-minutes – I was very happy to be proved wrong. As the lights came up and Hlelel ran off stage, I was so invested within the new world that had been created within that small auditorium that I did not want to believe that the play had finished. Habib Shehadeh Hanna’s score set a beautiful tone for the play throughout; my only qualm was that there wasn’t more of it.
Hlelel moved around with the intimacy of a grandfather, telling stories of the days of his youth. Although faltering occasionally with his lines, his recovery was quick and added only to the sympathy that the audience felt for his character. His physicality added to this image. Gesticulating wildly as he paced up and down performing comic impressions of the characters that he has met throughout his lifetime, Hlelel’s performance eased the audience into a sense of comfort too – similar to that you might feel in the company of an old friend.
his description of the variety of ways in which grief and loss are experienced and dealt with struck true, revealing a great deal about the human condition
These fluid, exaggerated movements were complimented by a powerful use of lighting which gradually evolves as the play progresses, cleverly complimenting Taha’s confusion about his identity and heritage with the projection of two distinct shadows from his person across the stage. These shadows are key throughout the play, changing the tone of Taha’s story from the familiar and anecdotal (as he creates shadow puppets with his hands) to frighteningly-lonely (as he stands, centre-stage, by himself). Muaz Jubeh’s technical skill in this respect serves to remind us of the value that lighting holds on stage, as well as the beauty that accompanies simplicity.
The vibrant images created within the script were just as essential in transporting the audience to his childhood home of Saffuriya in Galilee, followed by a refugee camp in Lebanon, and the other places that his life ended up taking him. Meandering through Taha’s recollections, the splicing together of relatable quips alongside the harsh realities of his upbringing humanised the character; his description of the variety of ways in which grief and loss are experienced and dealt with struck true, revealing a great deal about the human condition in a way that avoided being preachy.
The poems were woven seamlessly into the script, providing a clear insight into the symbiotic evolution of poem and poet
As somebody who generally dislikes reading poetry translated from its original tongue, another matter that I was initially dubious about was how the production would tackle integrating the poems of Taha into the play. My concerns were once again soothed via the use of a projected translation onto the wall behind Hlelel, enabling him to preserve the beautiful lilting rhythms of the original Hebrew whilst ensuring that the audience was able to understand the poems too. The poems were woven seamlessly into the script, providing a clear insight into the symbiotic evolution of poem and poet, providing the means by which the audience could empathise with both more wholly.
Taha is on at the Young Vic through until 15th July – information for which can be found here. After that it will be moving up to Summerhall for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August. Make sure that you don’t miss out on this stunning and thought-provoking production.
Image: The Young Vic