Fireworks at the Royal Court Theatre – Review

Fireworks (al’ab nariya) deals in innocence, growing up and conflict in a touching story of families struggling to survive and live normally in Palestine. Dalia Taha strips back the stereotypes, misconceptions and assumptions surrounding the ongoing conflict to look closely into two households at its epicentre; families who watch the bombs fall and tell their children that rockets are beautiful fireworks in the sky.

It’s a play of pretend and make believe. It starts like a horror film. A clownish young figure stands centre stage. It’s creepy. And then blackout – lights up – blackout. The lights fizz on and off in sparks of noise and confusion.

The small, multi-purpose space of the Jerwood Upstairs becomes the stairwell where the children play, the family apartments and the beach – a place of final but tragic escape. Natasha Chivers’ set, with drapes of hanging light bulbs, allows the characters’ lives to interweave on a stage of tears, fight and play – snapshots of life in a war zone.

A feisty friendship forms between eleven year-old Lubna (Shakira Riddell-Morales) and twelve year-old Khalil (Yusuf Hofri), trapped in their apartment building, bored by the lack of school routine and other children to play with. Both are boisterous and hardy, playing war games and mind games with each other, at times seeming to break free of the fear that surrounds them.

“There’s no-one in the streets but us. You run that way and I’ll run this way. Whoever gets back to the front door first without getting shot, wins.”

The grown ups play at games and hobbies too. Skipping ecstatically with a jump rope. Mending neighbour’s radios. Looking after pigeons. Phone calls to a restaurant on the other side in a meek attempt to invoke something like their experience of fear.

It is Lubna’s mother, Nahla (Sirine Saba) who seems most wrenched with fear and sleeplessness, unable to forget her son whose remains were packed up in a plastic bag and buried in the cemetery it is now too dangerous to visit. She tells herself he was ‘martyred’. She is strangely unlikeable – tense, dramatic and blunt. Her relationship with her husband Khalid (Saleh Bakri) is fraught as they both struggle to reconcile their own make believes – the different plays they act to cope.

Lubna’s direct and unflinchingly innocent monologue concludes the play with a tale of death and heaven. It jolts us in the audience into self-awareness – like another snapchat from a horror story. But it’s simple, stripped down, a girl alone with her audience. It characterises war with childhood stories. I dare you not to cry.

Fireworks is playing in the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court Theatre until 14 March 2015. More information on the Royal Court website, here.

Photo: Helen Maybanks.