A NEW, uneasy Palestinian play at the Bush Theatre in London, The Beloved, drags the Islamic, Christian, and Jewish faiths over quicksand.
The artistic director and playwright Amir Nizar Zuabi scrutinises what occurs after Abraham and Isaac climb down the mountainside: the effect of an infraction of a rule, thou shalt not damage thy son, in a world where sheep are slaughtered and eaten, and lambs are the keepers of dreams and the keepers of stories.
Isaac, traumatised, says: “I became a lamb, a sacrificial lamb. Big black eyes, acceptance and submission.” Zuabi’s Oedipal vision pits innocent boy against damaged father, knife versus gun.
Back home, the child strips down to white long johns. There are rope marks on his wrists, and a bruise on his neck; and he had wet his trousers. He sleeps on a bed that was the table, under a white sheet, while two actors playing sheep discuss the families’ problems, and war. Later, suspended on hooks, they are brought off the stage as if off to the abattoir.
Problems also derive from Abraham’s pride. He is dominant and callous; we never see him pray. He even omits to feed his sheep, who are “mad with hunger”. In the kitchen, the epicentre of the play, we hear about the loss of Ishmael, the gritty texture of grief. What is tested is Abraham’s standing as a reliable narrator, and the relationship with his son Isaac in a fleecy bubble of a world.
It is a tactile and rough world signalled by light shining through a giant sheepskin belling like a pregnant womb over the action — and the offstage sound of bleating. This cumulatively becomes the language of fear and the primitive but also supra-foolish modern soul.
Zuabi gives Abraham the line, “I heard a voice.” We are led to believe that it was not God he was obedient to, but his inner voices, his angst at the loss of Ishmael. Not a dream, a vision, or intuition. No reflection regarding what it is that God would have done. We are tempted to sink into a gradual revelation of what really happened. According to Zuabi.
Sarah comments that Abraham’s actions have made her suffer. “For three days I’m a wounded mare. With a horseman of fear walking me in circles. Three days. You look at him and here is no love in your eyes.” Relationships in the play deteriorate. Fatherhood is not experienced as a good thing.
Isaac also hears things. “The brown sheep told me ‘you can’t be a father.’” Sheep become sacred; men become foolish and weak. “It’s all in your head,” Isaac’s wife says. We begin to wonder. . . The only god acknowledged in the play is the wise ram’s “merciful god whose body becomes visible in white clouds”. The only sign, as told by the wise ram, a mistake. A brown sheep gives Abraham his vision. Finally, Isaac, grown up, “a man sheep”, can tell his father, who wanted to make a man of him, “you couldn’t hear your own son.”
The play speaks about how a father’s cruelty slays the inner child, and about using what we call God’s voice to further give legitimacy to our own deep desires, and to fleece others. Isaac, the haunted victim, has to be emotionally rescued by his wife as an adult: “Get rid of the fear and the hate,” she says. “Put your life back in balance.”
The play manages a sort of happy ending, with hope of a new son. It climbs a Jacob’s ladder to many questions. Is faith a delusion? Is it paranoia? Have we all been mistaken for thousands of years? What if it’s all psycho-spiritual? What we think about is the terrified, damaged child, the disturbance in our own lives.
But I also wondered about finding terra firma in the good shepherd, the suffering-son dynamic, the redemptive power of women, and the double-edged knife of the play’s deafness to spiritual genesis.
The Beloved by Amir Nizar Zuabi runs at the Bush Theatre, 7 Uxbridge Road, London W12, until tomorrow. Box office: phone 020 8743 5050.