How Palestinian children are now ambassadors for a new age

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I COULD never imagine on that December morning in 2008, as we mounted our rough-and-ready piece of drama in a school playground at Shatila Palestinian refugee camp, Beirut, that little over two years later the play would be performed in a modern Lebanese theatre, and among the first night audience would be the director of the British Council Beirut, and the British Ambassador to Lebanon (who would praise it in her blog).

Or that we would receive standing ovations, be interviewed by three Arabic TV stations, several radio networks, and be written about by various Middle-East newspapers, including the critic of The Daily Star, Lebanon’s leading English language periodical.

Emily Holman wrote: “The play is as surprising as it is inventive. As with all the best allegorical writing, the meaning is profoundly contemporary, and the principle messages have a weighty significance.”

That December morning, in the squalid cramped poverty which is Shatila, a forgotten suffocating place in existence since the creation of Israel in 1948, we’d built a makeshift stage, and scrounged sound equipment.

The school’s art teacher had knocked up basic costumes and props, as curious residents of the camp – few of whom would have experienced theatre in their lives – gathered to see the Shatila youngsters do their stuff, performing the play in English, a language of which they had only scant knowledge.

The play came to the north east in 2009 and received great acclaim, and a new version, with a new cast of 12, was mounted at Theatre Monnot in Beirut last month.

Theatre Monnot is in the mainly Christian upmarket East Beirut, a universe away from the slums of Shatila. To have Palestinian refugee children perform there is a small miracle.

Our production team of six lived for 16 days in basic conditions in the camp, which houses 17,000 people in its one square kilometre. The experience had a profound effect on us all, and Shatila took us to its heart. Now the production is coming to North Tyneside.

The project has touched a nerve. When news of the UK visit got out, we had invites from Edinburgh and Liverpool.

The current huge seismic changes in the Arab world have made the play, Croak, the King and a Change in the Weather, seem highly relevant. It’s a fable, based on my book, on the downfall of a despotic autocrat who has ruled forever.

Publicity has come from unlikely quarters. An article last week in The Jewish Chronicle prompted an enquiry from a Liverpool Jewish school. Could they see the play and meet the cast?

It’s unlikely those children will ever have encountered Palestinians, nor our young Palestinians have had any direct contact with Jewish people, so this meeting takes on a weighty significance against the background of a turbulent Middle-East.

Thus the ripples spread outwards, and our young Palestinians, unknowingly, become ambassadors for a real change in the weather.

The Saville Exchange, North Shields, includes two afternoon performances for schools, some of which I’ve recently been visiting. At Woodlawn Special School, Monkseaton one boy, Jordan Thompson, quizzed me intently on Shatila, the play and the situation of the Palestinians. At the end he came forward and pushed a 50p piece into my hand. “Please give this to the children of Shatila,” he said.

The Shatila Project continually brings high emotional, creative and social involvement, but here was a moment which especially struck home.

Croak, the King and a Change in the Weather opens at The Sage Gateshead on Saturday.

On Monday and Tuesday, it is at The Saville Exchange, 7.30pm, £5, back-to-back with Making Plans for Jessica, by Kitty Fitzgerald. The latter play is performed by The Anne Orwin Acting Academy of North Shields. For Saville tickets call (0191) 6437 093.