It just so happened the person supposed to attend Ballad of the Burning Star with yours truly had a pre-show panic attack at London’s Old Street tube station. It was rush hour and they’re not used to public transport.
Sympathetic to a variety of mental health issues, I sent them home with a suggestion they should drink some wine and lie down. I then called another friend, who happens to be a Greek Orthodox priest. Could he get to Battersea Arts Centre in 30 minutes? Yes, he could. Amen, sister.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t time to explain we were about to witness a satirical cabaret riff on the contradictions of Israeli policy via a dance troupe and a bullying Jewish drag queen. Ooops.
The show was barely under way when our hi-heeled host, ‘Star’ (writer and director Nir Paldi) stepped into the audience to do a ‘security check’. She was particularly interested in anybody with ‘olive skin and a beard’. ‘Please,’ I thought. ‘Not my priest.’
The silent prayers fell on deaf ears. The imperious Star noisily descended upon my unwitting, faithful friend, searched his bag and coat, made him stand up for everyone to see, then claimed to have found lube in one of his pockets. Jesus. Wept. Father, can you ever forgive me?
He did, bless him, but it proved a suitably brilliant and awkward start to a persistently confrontational and provocative show. How apposite – a priest, harassed by a drag queen for ‘looking like’ a terrorist.
Nir Paldi and the Ad Infinitum cast must be applauded for wading into a moral war zone with little ammo but glitter, conviction, dramatic chops and a slippery moral compass. Theater is rarely this bold or so deceptively glib with such knotty and inflammatory topics.
The show is the pseudo-autobiographical story of Israel, a playful boy raised in a Jewish settlement in the Occupied Territories. He grows into an accidentally murderous soldier, but this denouement is presented as a tragic, inevitable absurdity, rather than a judgment on either party in the ongoing conflict.
Star is ably supported by a troupe of lithe dancers in skimpy military garb (think Cheryl Cole in Fight for this Love). The girls play an ensemble of opinionated characters ranging from the family dog to a Zionist grandmother. As a young boy, Israel is told by his parents when driving through the settlements the unsavory smell is down to the fact their Arabs neighbors, ‘burn their rubbish with sheep dung’.
Why?’ asks Israel. ‘Because they are Arabs,’ he is told.
Star informs the audience his family neglected to tell him that the Palestinian’s flaming rubbish was a necessary response due to the lack of infrastructure or facilities for basic refuse collection – a situation directly stemming from Israel’s policies.
He then explains to the audience the Israeli settlements are always nestled at the top of hills, creating a sewage situation for the Palestinians below, where they are quite literally, dealing with Israeli shit.
In addition to the spiky symbolism, the show ambitiously rips through hundreds of years of history, ultimately questioning history itself. The power, beauty and masochism of a repeated story is highlighted when a litany of anti-Semitism that spans centuries is treated as a holy mantra, a shocking indictment and an utter bore.
It’s no surprise that during its successful run at the Edinburgh Festival, people stormed from the show and lobbed accusations of anti-Semitism. Such a reaction is wide of the mark, but the show does question Israeli policy, cultural attitudes and the confusing nature of a once dispossessed and oppressed community becoming willful oppressors.
This production doesn’t offer any answers or suggest any actions, it merely highlights the hypocrisies and stokes a philosophical fire.
In a recent debate on ‘The ethics of LGBTI travel’ at GSN’s Gay Star Beach Party and LGBTI Travel Show, veteran gay activist Peter Tatchell suggested that as a community, we should boycott Israel due to their policies towards Palestine.
Lacking Peter’s conviction or morals, I’d jump at an expenses-paid trip to Tel Aviv, because who would care if I didn’t go? The Ballad of the Burning Star mocks the shiny entreaties of the Israeli tourist board, but it also highlights how a definitive stance such as a boycott may not suit such a nuanced and complex mess.
Drag is always a fighting faÃ§ade and this show is equally combative when you look beyond the razzle dazzle. Throwing a sheen of glitz on an ugly, political puzzle proves a clever device to make you look at the issue once again. When reportage always sounds the same, you cease to pay attention. This week, a report by Amnesty accused ‘trigger happy’ Israeli troops of war crimes. The Israeli military has quickly rebuffed the charity and accused them of partisan reporting. Plus Ã§a change?
The Ballad of Burning Star delivers so much more than the exhausting white noise of rolling news; it’s a Brechtian howl from the front line, a slap to the face with a manicured hand and a history lesson that haunts for days afterwards.