Review - 'Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied Tunisia' mixes drama with dark comedy
In a time long ago, well 1943 to be exact, Tunisia was home to Arabs and Jews who lived together under French rule. The Nazi's invasion of Tunisia introduced violence, suffering, and betrayal between neighbours. Such is the setting for the Almeida's new drama about war, survival, and identity which playwright Josh Azouz serves drenched in sickly black humour.
In the play's striking opening scene, designer Max Johns has innovatively recreated a Tunisian desert using sand coloured boxes of various sizes. Here, Victor (Pierro Niel-Mee) is buried up to his neck and pleads that his friend Youssef (Ethan Kai) who now works for the Nazis, pees into his mouth to quench his thirst. When Youssef fails to pee on demand, Victor goes on about the ripply waves of the sea in a desperate attempt to make Youssef's urine flow.
This tone which treads a fine line between tragedy and comedy is maintained throughout the play's two-and-a-half hour running time. During that time, the play takes many twists and turns. Victor suffers horrific treatment at the hands of the merciless Nazis who were free to be more "creative" in their methods of torture in Africa compared to Europe. The deranged Nazi camp leader nicknamed Grandma (Adrian Edmondson) pays Loys (Yasmin Paige), Viktor's wife, a visit where things descend into chaos. An unexpected love triangle also emerges which ramps up the tension and drives a wedge through the friendship between Youssef, Victor, and Loys. All the while, there is no shortage of jokes which stun you into laughter at how cruel and absurd the unravelling events are.
Although the plot spins in different directions at times, the drama is firmly pulled together thanks to director Eleanor Rhode. In a stand-out dinner scene, the verbal tussle between Grandma and Loys is gripping and also terrifying in parts. Edmondson, who leads the strong cast, perfectly embodies a psychotic villain. In one moment, his character is complimentary and courteous to Loys, then in the next, he's threatening to gouge Loys's eyes out. Despite a knee injury that resulted in some last-minute changes to the staging during press night, Edmondson was able to hold the audience in the palm of his hand. Paige also delivered an equally feisty performance as Edmondson's stage partner.
The play dips into the Zionist debate and also touches on other politically charged themes. But you shouldn't go in expecting a full-bodied history lesson as it feels like there is much more to unpack about this period. Nonetheless, it's a comically dark and stirring, if at times slightly winding, glimpse into a not so well-known time.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner
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