March 10, 2023


Grey Rock
Written and directed by Amir Nizar Zuabi
Remote Theatre Project.
Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre.
March 10. Until March 12.

We last saw the work of the remarkable writer and director Amir Nizar Zuabi at the Adelaide Festival in 2018. Touring then with his Palestinian ShiberHur Theatre Company, he presented two plays Azza and Taha both of which made an enduring impression for those fortunate enough to see them.

So Zuabi’s return with Grey Rock, under the auspices of the Remote Theater Project is an event much anticipated and it does not disappoint. Zuabi’s seemingly simple productions carry timely and important meaning for audiences in the UK, Europe and the US. Through his projects and affiliations with the Young Vic, United Theatres Europe and the Sundance Institute Theater Program he presents the human face of the Palestinian people and their predicament.

Like the Belarus Free Theatre and their production Dogs of Europe also playing in the festival this year, he is giving a voice and visibility to a population under siege; for men and women and children caught up in a grim geopolitical nightmare that has become abstracted, reductive and too bitter to unravel – as the heated fulminations around this year’s Writer’s Week demonstrated yet again.

Khalifa Natour as Yusuf. Photo: Roy VanDerVegt

Grey Rock is as compelling as it is original. Yusuf, a grieving widower in his sixties, is a Palestinian TV repairman who has a secret mission. In fact, it is a space mission – to send a rocket to the moon. He has been working away in his shed, poring over blueprints and calculations, gathering materials and components, all sourced from the internet. No one has any idea, not even his loving daughter Lila, who thinks all his email writing might be him contacting a secret lady friend.

Fadel, a bright young high school graduate who has mysteriously turned down a scholarship to study in Houston, Texas, has been making the online deliveries to Yusuf and has enough physics and engineering know-how to guess something is going on.

Suspicions widen. Jawad, Lila’s commercially-minded fiancé is concerned Yusuf’s activities will damage his father’s business interests. Others suspect Yusuf, once imprisoned for publishing a dissenting political pamphlet, is now collaborating with the Israelis. Everyone is fearful of a reprisal of some kind from the authorities.

In no time the news is out that it is a rocket. Yusuf’s argument and reasoning is inspiring. Literally inspiring, as he points to the first Moon Landing in 1969 and how it galvanised, not only the American people, but for a moment made the entire world look up to the heavens, above their usual irreconcilable differences.

Yusuf and unknown Space figure. Photo: Roy VanDerVegt

I wondered about the title for this remarkable play. Google tells me that “grey rock-ing” is a strategy:

To “grey rock” a person involves making all interactions with them as uninteresting and unrewarding as possible. In general, this means giving short, straightforward answers to questions and hiding emotional reactions to the things a person says or does.

It is a way of becoming a minimal target. Necessary but also diminishing. After a while, the business of defending becomes all there is. This is Yusuf before we meet him, then Yusuf’s plan is a reversal of that. He becomes pre-emptive and startling, with absurdity and quixotic human imagination.

In his director’s notes Amir Nizar Zuabi writes – “This act, in a place like Palestine, is an impossible feat and carries the weight of a political act . It is defying the nature of oppression – to break free from the historical past …and ignore the political present. It is a celebration of the human spirit, it is a celebration of freedom.”

It is a zany plan full of impossibilities. Yusuf recites the catchcries of the Apollo program – JFK-isms like: we are doing it, not because it’s easy, but because it is hard. It is the Mouse that Roared. It is a Rocket to the Moon.

And it is uplifting theatre. Tal Yarden’s set design is simple and striking. The opening dialogue takes place in front of the curtain. When it is raised we glimpse into Yusuf’s workshop (gloriously lit by Muaz Jubeh) with clotheslines pegged with transparencies and blueprints and a few gizmos pertaining to construction. The rocket, very aptly, is left entirely to our imagination.

The performances are delightfully engaging. Propelled by Zuabi’s funny, sharp, heartfelt dialogue, the characters are vividly and memorably drawn. As Lila, Fidaa Zaidan captures the exasperation of a daughter who, with her late mother suffered for her father’s sense of principle, and now wants to find a safe, dull uncomplicated husband in her fiancé, Jawad (played with broad but believable gusto by Alaa Shehada).

Yusuf and Sheik (Motaz Malhees). Photo: Roy VanDerVegt

Luca Kamieh Chapman brings a likeable charm to Fadel, the young unworldly scholar who is captured by Yusuf’s dream and even more by his daughter, and as Sheik, the iman from the mosque, Motaz Malhees brings a humanity and generosity to a cleric who might well have been Yusuf’s fiercest adversary.

Much of the success of this fine production rests with the excellent Khalifa Natour as Yusuf. It is such a relaxed, comic, wise rendering of an ordinary man with an extraordinary plan. He speaks with wryly humorous simplicity and dignity about rebuilding the capacity to imagine and strive. He reminds us of the past glory of Arab science and echoes can-do American optimism as correctives to the oppressed mindset of occupation. His surprise strategy is not a weapon, it is an audacious, gone-viral-on-CNN, rocket of hope.


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