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It was a heart attack – his second – that inspired Mahmoud Darwish to write Jidariyya, “a kind of delirious commentary on Ecclesiastes” and its famous line “vanity of vanities; all is vanity”. But this extended literary poem packed with religious, philosophical and mythical references is far from a gloomy memento mori. Darwish, safely recovered, calls it his “ode to life”, the triumph of poetry over death signalling the dawning of resurrection.
Given his background – one of the greatest living Arab poets, former lead member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, years in exile – it would be tempting to look for overt political messages in this stage adaptation by the Palestinian National Theatre. But the jidar of the title means not only wall or wall painting but also a wall-climbing plant spreading upwards and outwards. The rich soil of homeland is evoked – but sensually, as a creative response to the challenges of conflict and occupation.
So how do you make accessible a dense metaphysical poem, especially for audiences that have lost the oral tradition still prized in Arab societies? The challenge is met with brio by young director and designer Nizar Amir Zuabi, who deftly anchors the metaphysics in the most concrete of settings. A hospital bed dominates the stage. The bewildered old man is undressed by white-coated nurses and put into regulation pyjamas as a heart monitor beeps ominously. Yet the backdrop to this instantly recognisable scene of frailty and impotence is an elegant pattern of ramps evoking roads to exile, pathways to freedom, stairways to heaven. Laden travellers plod wearily up to death. Zuabi confidently interweaves music, masks and symbols, like the field of wheat sprouting from the giant cloak of the fertility goddess Anat.
Khalifa Natour’s adaptation brings out the complex oppositions by creating a separate character for the inner poet within the failing old man. Invisible to the nurses, this alter ego fights an existential battle with death, begs for time, revives the old man with words. Natour acts with quivering passionate intensity, well contrasted with the softened wisdom of Makram Khoury, PNT artistic director and Galilean contemporary of Darwish.
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