Ramallah–During the first act of Samuel Beckett’s 1952 tragicomedy Waiting for Godot, one of the play’s protagonists, Estragon, turns to the other, Vladimir, and blankly notes to the audience, “Nothing to be done.” Vladimir returns, “I’m beginning to come round to the opinion.”
Jenin’s Freedom Theatre Company, whose spirited performance of Beckett’s seminal work opened this weekend at Ramallah’s National Theatre, has been anything but resigned to giving up on a theatre project which has garnered a boast of international attention since the murder of its creative director Juliano Mer Khamis last April.
One can’t think of a better suited play than Beckett’s existential work for the graduate students of the Freedom Theatre given the rough events of the company over the past six months. Their creative director and founder was shot to death by unknown militants as he emerged from a rehearsal in Jenin last March. Three members of the company, including a leading actor, were arrested and detained by the Israeli army and, to add insult to injury, the Freedom Theatre has been attacked by patrolling Israeli convoys numerous times in recent months.
Despite the setbacks, the company delivered an inspired performance last night to a crowded Ramallah audience. The fact that the performance took place was testament to the power of art in the face of relentless oppression. However, it was the standout performance by the Freedom Theatre’s two leading actresses which highlighted the production.
Maryam abu Khaled and Batool Taled, both residents of the Jenin refugee camp, carried the performance with energetic renditions of play’s lead characters. Juliano Mer Khamis’s daughter made surprise appearance as the inquisitive and reassuring child who shyly confirms the existence of Godot to the frustrated protagonists.
Ramzi Hwayel, a 20 year old Freedom theatre student from Jenin cast in the pivotal role of Pozzo, was arrested in August by Israeli soldiers and disappeared into the Israeli military legal system for roughly three weeks. In a rare instance of good luck for the company, Mr. Hwayel was released by Israel and able to re-join the production just in time for the performance. His performance of Beckett’s cruel slave master Pozzo was full of emotion and passion which most certainly could be traced, at least in part, to his recent time in Israeli military detention.
Udi Aloni, the Israeli filmmaker and director of the Waiting for Godot, ended the performance with heartfelt words. “This has been an emotional experience since the murder of Juliano and the arrests of our actors,” Aloni said to the audience. “Tonight, I am overtaken with emotion. Juliano was a master teacher and you have just seen his work in this brilliant performance by his students. I am in awe.” Many in audience, including foreign diplomats and American academics, clearly shared Aloni’s sense of awe after seeing the artistic production of young Palestinians living under occupation.
Depending on travel visas, the Freedom Theatre’s production of Waiting for Godot will travel to New York in October for a series of performances.