A bookseller in the West Bank is arrested. His name is Saeed (Edmund Kingsley) and his brother is a Palestinian fighter – and fighters meet in Saeed’s shop, according to Saeed’s Israeli captors. On remand, the young bookseller meets an Ethiopian prison officer with a soft heart (Cornelius Macarthy), other prisoners and various corrupt and contemptible interrogators. His wife visits; his father, a big-shot property developer, chooses not to. “Battles are raged – and wars won” inside these Israeli jails, we are told.
To be clear, The Keepers of Infinite Space is a political play in sympathy with the ordeal of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons. By the evidence on stage, you cannot disagree that Saeed is treated horrendously.
The space is shallow, but Philip Lindley’s unlovely design – a wire cage with bunks made from scaffolding – looks right. Omar El-Khairy’s earnest dialogue meanders fluently enough; jokes are eschewed at all costs. But his dialogue sounds like what you might (lazily) expect to hear people saying in these circumstances – an impression underscored by the use of so many clichés: “nothing’s worth dying for”; “let go of the past”; “there’s no justice in the world”; “you’re here because of who you are and that’s never going to change”.
When English companies stage Russian plays, they are often criticised for being too “English” – too polite, too twee, that is. That’s the case here too. There are no awful performances. But there are no good ones either. Hilton McRae is credible as the oily dad; Macarthy and Philip Correia (who plays a boy jailed for throwing stones) are affecting. But everyone looks too comfortable in this earthly hell – there is no sweat, no heart: betrayed by his father, a son whines petulantly, “I hate you. I hate everything you represent”; an Israeli intelligence officer is a puffed-up villain; a wife sees her husband for the first time since his arrest and settles into a gentle natter. It feels awfully “English”.
Zoe Lafferty’s direction is clear and competent, yet competence is not sufficient if you want to pick at the world’s most emotive and contentious issue. Her show does not reverberate with the scale of events; the politics – pressing as they are – will not persuade anyone who is not already persuaded. For that, you need to be extraordinary.