BEIRUT: Among the best-loved redemption tales in English-language literature is Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” First published in 1843, Dickens’ story of how a miserly old capitalist named Scrooge was converted to generosity in a single night has inspired any number of adaptations in various media, most noticeably cinema. Irish writer-performer Katie O’Kelly has taken the narrative mechanics of Dickens’ novella and deployed it in a politically engaged one-woman play about political agency. First staged in 2016, “The Olive Tree” had its Beirut debut at Masrah al-Madina Saturday evening, part of Lebanon’s European Theatre Festival.
The play’s stage design is simple and effective. A lone spotlight illuminates a single carpet which serves as O’Kelly’s performance space. Over the course of the work’s 60 minutes, the light and (generally understated) sound design are modulated to accompany the drama. At one point a screen discretely erected at the back of the stage, is illuminated with a montage of scenes from occupied Palestine, but the audio-visual bells and whistles that have come to accompany contemporary theatre are kept to a minimum.
The heavy lifting of animating the play falls to O’Kelly herself. Her character “Ash,” the play’s narrator, works the till at Tesco, a job that’s made her too numb to care about much. That doesn’t prevent her feeling irritation when confronted by an activist with a basketful of “Israeli-made” goods produced on Palestinian land, all with yellow “Boycott” stickers attached to them.
“They’re growing these goods on occupied land,” announces a belligerent, shaggy, unattractive, runny-nosed activist, “like it was here for 800 years.”
He’s been in the aisles affixing Boycott stickers to offending products, just as Ash is meant to finish her shift. Now she must work overtime, returning the items to the shelves free of boycott stickers.
When she removes a yellow sticker from a bottle of Israeli olive oil, the olive tree that’s part of the bottle’s branding magically bursts from the label to become an enormous olive tree. Still clutching her shopping basket full of boycott-worthy products, Ash is transported from lush Dublin to an arid locale that, as the olive tree informs her, is Palestine.
O’Kelly’s description of this change of space is delivered with the same comic jauntiness as the piano tune that anticipated her arrival onstage. “What the fuck is going on?” Ash asks. When the olive tree replies to her, she remarks, “The tree’s talkin’ to me ... Never should’ve gone off those meds.”
Not unlike Scrooge’s Spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future, the olive tree acts as Ash’s guide through Palestine’s occupation. Picking up the remaining goods in the shopping basket - a bag of Jaffa oranges, a tub of hummus, a bag of potatoes - triggers leaps through space and time.
Each stop on the journey is peopled by emotionally drawn characters that seem to be inspired by the artists’ own experiences working in Palestine.
The first series of vignettes center on the life of an old lady named Badra. Ash encounters her preparing a dish made of grape leaves rolled around stuffing, which she’s using to erect a wall around herself. Later, Badra is seen as a little girl who’s been entrusted with carrying the key to the family house just as Zionist gunmen displace their entire village. Later still she’s a mother whose house is knocked down by an Israeli bulldozer.
O’Kelly’s characterisation of Ash is an effective sketch of the contemporary consumer-citizen - reluctant to pay attention to national politics, let alone give a damn about the politics of occupation and discrimination underlying so much produce in a globalised grocery store.
Equally important, Ash is a sturdy pylon from which to hang the comic asides that buoy up the play’s grim backstory. Capable of exuding a gamut of emotion from comic irony to tragic melodrama, the energetic O’Kelly makes this play entertaining for a Beirut audience.
This no small feat given that the script has been so cleverly devised to speak to an Irish (or U.K.) audience - whether a Palestinian character informing Ash that Ireland is the historic home of boycott, or Ash herself noting the incongruity of a grocery store in Ireland stocking potatoes from Israel.
As she made her curtain call, O’Kelly remarked how exciting it was to be able to stage her work so close to Palestine. The statement served to remind one audience member that “The Olive Tree” probably has a rather different meaning in Beirut than it does in Dublin.
As a work of engaged theater, O’Kelly’s work seeks to remind an Irish audience that, as consumers, they too can make their opinions felt in occupied Palestine. Lebanon’s proximity to Palestine’s occupiers has made local audiences perhaps less innocent that some in Ireland, and created deep divisions in local politics and society. Chances are that anyone attending “The Olive Tree” didn’t need convincing.
Lebanon’s European Theatre Festival runs through Oct. 12. For more, see http://almadinatheater.com/events