Tragedy and gallows humour in new play about life in Gaza

Anyone reading the marketing blurb for Ahmed Masoud’s latest play The Shroud Maker, coming to Greenwich in February, could be forgiven for taking it as some kind of modern reimagining of Brecht’s famous war-time classic Mother Courage And Her Children. Brecht’s play follows the fortunes of a woman travelling endlessly around a war zone selling whatever she can find to the soldiers to stay alive. Her life, it seems, is contingent on the war continuing. Masoud’s apparently parallel play tells the story of Hajja Souad, an 84 year old woman living in the El Shujaia Neighbourhood in Gaza who has survived decades of wars by making and selling shrouds for the dead, profiting from the continuous Israeli attacks.

However, far from a literary exercise, Masoud’s play comes from his own experiences. “I wrote a few initial ideas for the play during that last 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza” he told me. “Back then, I was reading the news every night before I went to bed, making sure I read all the names of the injured or killed to be sure that my family and relatives weren’t amongst them. I didn’t want to go to bed, I didn’t know what I was going to wake up to. One day, I was reading a local news website and came across a woman who had her shop open selling shrouds. When asked why she was still working, she replied “Because I don’t give a f***”. So I started imagining her life and wanted to know more about her, I created a fictional narrative around her and how she got there.”

All of this makes the play sound like a dark drama about life in a war zone, but the script has moments of jet black comedy running through it.

“Sarcasm and humour is an important aspect of Palestinian life” Masoud continued. “I grew up in the Gaza Strip and I remember my family members laughing in the face of occupation and military checkpoints. We have endless jokes about Yasser Arafat, the Israelis, Hamas, Fateh – you name it. I wanted the play to have as much black comedy as possible. The main character is a survivor of war, displacement, identity loss and humiliation, but in her octogenarian years she has nothing left to lose apart from her sewing machine. The grim absurdity of a situation like that makes a community more creative with its jokes.”

This year there has been no shortage of plays, novels, exhibitions and other artistic responses to war, all part of the national WWI centenary celebrations. The last play presented at the Greenwich Theatre studio, Lest We Forget by Charlotte Green, told the largely forgotten story of a black British soldier in WWI, while I have spent much of the last month directing local community play The Canaries in Woolwich, about the women who worked in the munitions factory at Woolwich Arsenal during the same war. However, as well as being reflective, revisiting history for a modern audience, theatre can also respond to more immediate situations, responding with anger, with laughter, with despair and frustration, just as Brecht’s Mother Courage did. As well as looking back it can show us what is happening today and demand a response. With Russian military aggression over the Ukraine adding to current news stories about Afghanistan, Syria and the Yemen, all taking place alongside the countless other conflicts that don’t make the headlines, it is essential that theatre not only looks back but also reveals the present, and in doing so, challenges us to imagine and to influence the future.

James Haddrell is the Artistic & Executive Director of Greenwich Theatre.

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