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When the Bulbul Stopped Singing

The "Brits Off Broadway" festival presents a Palestinian soap opera for credulous Westerners. logo
Christopher Simon in Bulbul
Photo © Richard Campbell
When the Bulbul Stopped Singing, which I suspect is a satire of the Palestinian Ministry of Communications, is hands down the funniest play that I've seen all year. Honestly, I haven't laughed this hard since the federal government canceled my subscription to Hezbollah's Al Manar TV. It's a take-no-prisoners comedy that dares to ask the question, "What does one do if one has an expansionist warrior nation at one's doorstep?"

Part of the "Brits Off Broadway" festival, the production comes to us from England's northern neighbor, which sort of explains it: BBC Scotland is a corporate sponsor of the Traverse Theater, producer of Bulbul. A one-man show based on the diaries of Palestinian novelist Raja Shehadeh, it features menacing Israeli soldiers ravishing inanimate objects, terrorizing old women and children, emitting foul odors, and mistaking large bags of fertilizer for explosives. My theater companion and I glanced at each other during all of this but we kept our cool until the actor playing Raja told a story about a group of Israeli soldiers engaging in an orgy with mannequins; then we both lost it.

Surely, the good people of the audience couldn't believe that a platoon of IDF soldiers got their jollies with a bunch of Palestinian mannequins! Bulbul also contains allegations of massacre at the Jenin refugee camp -- the biggest faked news story of 2002, which even the Palestinian Authority admits has been discredited. The playwright responsible for this adaptation, David Greig, creatively finds a way to demonize Israel for Saddam Hussein's having threatened the country with chemical weapons, which supposedly put neighboring Palestinian towns in danger. (What he fails to mention is that Yasser Arafat's support of Saddam led to the expulsion of about 400,000 Palestinians living in Kuwait.)

Palestinian suffering is no laughing matter, so it's tragic that Bulbul makes such a mockery of it. It's inexcusable for a show that has the imprimatur of the U.K.'s largest news network to contain so many obvious distortions, unsubstantiated claims, shameless incitements, and brazen falsehoods that any chance for genuine empathy on the part of a fair-minded person is lost. Instead, we get nostalgia for Arafat-era radicalism during a time of renewed hope for reconciliation. Don't call this a pro-Palestinian play; it does nothing to advance the cause of peace and understanding, which is obviously in the best interests of both sides.

Christopher Simon, the Scottish actor who plays Raja, wages a long and valiant intifada to liberate his Arabic accent through sheer surmoud (or perseverance); alas, he fails. Set designer Anthony Macilwaine has horizontally raked the stage at a sharp angle, which makes the whole production seem even more off-kilter. Whenever Raja talks about the Israeli tanks, lighting designer Chahine Yavroyan switches on dark blue bulbs and Max Richter cues sinister music. Director Philip Howard has definitely mastered the art of heavy-handed staging.

At one point in the script, Raja asserts that Palestinians are "the soap opera of the Arab world." One might describe Bulbul as a soap opera for credulous Westerners.

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