A riveting, heartwarming story about life in the Gaza Strip; Tales of a City by the Sea is a great assemblage of stories woven into a beautiful narrative of the lives of ordinary people persevering through impossible conditions. No politics, no creed – just human beings.
The play itself is written by Palestinian-Australian-Canadian writer, Samah Sabawi, its remount directed by Wahibe Moussa and produced by Noraini Jane Ariffin and made possible by the Pusat Kreatif Kanak-kanak Tuanku Bainun, whose chairman is HRH Raja Dato’ Seri Azureen Sultan Azlan Shah. Already an award-winning theatre production in Australia, Tales of A City by the Sea brought its entire cast into this Malaysian Edition, with the exception of a replacement singer hailing from Malaysia, Tria Aziz. With a multi-cultural and multi-faith ensemble that includes artists from Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Palestine, Malta, Malaysia, Thailand, Italy, Bengal, Chile and the UK, the chemistry between the casts is impeccable. As the director, Wahibe Moussa, says, “We’ve become a family.”
This statement is made apparent through the staging of the play itself, where everything falls together beautifully. One of the strengths of the play is that it humanizes the characters so well. Set to a a background of normalcy as they fall in love, celebrate weddings and have family dinners, interspersed with sound clips of bombings, sporadic blackouts and profound (and at times despairing and desperate) poetry and song – making every moment relatable, although these scenes are personal, truthful stories sculpted from war zones.
Tales of a City by the Sea is told predominantly through the love story of Jomana (Helana Sawires), who’s lived her entire life in the Gaza Strip and Rami (Osamah Sami), a doctor of Palestinian descent based in the United States. Star-crossed comparisons were made, such as Romeo and Juliet, but more than the Shakespearean tale, the lives of Jomana and Rami serve as conduits of contrast of a daily life in peacetime and war. One of the best scenes of the play was when Rami’s conversation with his mother (Rebecca Morton) about returning to Gaza to meet with Jomana were juxtaposed to Jomana telling her father, Abu Ahmed (Majid Shokor) about Rami. The differences were stark, yet the similarities were unmissable.
The acting was spot on and engaging from all members of the cast, with Lama’s (Emina Ashman) transformation from being the cheerful teaser, putting Ali (Reece Vella) on a long leash, to being a grieving victim of the attacks on Gaza – it’s almost you get to see them grow up. But all is not somber. The play dishes out humour too but never at risk of desensitization or crudeness. Witnessing the wedding scene did not feel like watching a play, but more of an observer at the edge of the fences looking into your neigbour’s celebrations.
All of this was staged with minimal props, mostly centred around the curtains, as the scenes and acts change according to the way the curtains were set, and the props, laid out. Tria Aziz was wonderful as the singer, singing in multiple languages – sometimes hovering around the stage like a ghost, or as an actual tangible character in the play itself. More than just being multilingual, Tria Aziz also told us that she rehearsed with the rest of the team mostly over Skype and only had one dress rehearsal with them. Knowing this and seeing the songs magically interweave as a narrative piece makes this even more amazing.
Realism is the name of the game when it comes to the storytelling too. As Majid Shokor said, the clips that were used for the bombing scenes were snippets of actual recordings – the ones that could break hearts into tears. Speaking of which, Osamah Sami also recounted that one of the hardest things about acting in the play is to hold back the tears until they go backstage. “As an actor, your job is to make the audience feel things, not for you to get lost in your own emotions”, said Osamah. The same way Helena Sawires evoked emotions of sadness and gloom through her soul-crushing monologue of “Guilt and Relief”, Osamah did the same with his recitation of beseeching inquiry as to what the worth of a life is as more and more of deaths occur at his hands, and when he was randomly checked by the security guards (played by Cara Whitehouse and Ubaldino Mantelli who also played other characters in the play) at the airport.
Stupendous in execution, writing, acting and staging, Tales of a City by the Sea was a breathtaking exercise in empathy. This empathy did not stop at simple sentiments however, since the ticket proceeds went to Viva Palestina, an organization whom in turn, would supply food and basic amenities to the children.
For more information about the play, check out the website. To keep updated with more productions at Theatere KuAsh, check out their website. If you wish to help the Palestinian cause through Viva Palestina, head to their website.