A heap of rubble is all that was left of Gaza’s prime cultural centre after it was levelled by Israeli air strikes on 9 August 2018. Before it was reduced to dust, Said Al-Mishal Cultural Centre stood as a lofty theatre with its red fabric seats bringing art and music to the beleaguered residents of the besieged coastal enclave.
To mark one year since the centre was destroyed, UK-based Palestinian writer and director Ahmed Masoud, in a collaboration with English actress Maxine Peake, staged a unique protest.
“I wanted to create an artistic response that would have a lasting impact and leave a footprint every time people look up Gaza or the theatre or what happened,” Masoud tells MEMO.
“Obliterated”, a dark comedy starring Peake and directed by Masoud, was set to showcase at Amnesty International UK on 9 August, exploring “the complexity of a society that has lived under siege for over a decade”. Masoud announced yesterday that the fully-booked, free play was not only cancelled, but was never even written.
Setting people up for disappointment was the point. The promotion and cancellation of the play aimed to stimulate, at some level, the feelings of frustration and loss felt by Gaza’s residents after losing one of the only art venues in the Strip. “I didn’t want to do something that would be over in one night or two and only specific to those who attend the play,” Masoud says.
Everyone who reserved a ticket for the performance received an email with a special video message from Peake, informing them of the reasons for the play’s cancellation.
“Maxine and I wanted to highlight what it means when art is taken away from you through various means, through a cancellation or a bombing of a theatre,” he continued.
We wanted people here to feel what people in Gaza felt.
On the day of the bombing, Palestinian director Idrees Taleb was making last-minute prepartions for his latest production, a dark comedy which was due to be held at the centre. Soon after Taleb left the building, however, residents in the surrounding area received phone calls from the Israeli army alerting them that the building was going to be bombed. The centre was soon hit by a targeted warning strike, a “knock on the roof” as the practice has become known in Gaza. The warning strike by Israeli jets is intended as a warning, before larger-scale missiles demolish the building two hours later. Eighteen people were wounded in the attack on the centre.
Last year, a group of British playwrights and directors condemned the bombing, calling it “a devastating loss for the already isolated community”. In a letter to the Guardian, the artists, including the Director of the National Theatre, Rufus Norris, and playwright Caryl Churchill, said: “We support our dear friends and colleagues who describe their great rage and deep pain at the obliteration of this symbol of Palestinian culture and identity.”
“There once was a theatre that was obliterated. A show that did not go on,” Maxine Peake can be heard saying in the video.
“Maxine is also a very politically aware person and believes in the right of protest and freedom of expression,” Masoud tells MEMO, adding that the cancellation is a theatrical experience in itself. “It takes people out of their comfort zone and what they know of theatre and how it’s constructed. This is why having a video was key.”
“Why did you bomb the theatre? Because you are scoundrels and cowards; afraid of our songs and art.” Palestinian poet Farah Chamma said, reciting a poem in the video.
Masoud says he has been very nervous about people’s reactions when they find out the play was never planned to show. “I have been working a year on this,” he says. “I was worried that this would be the end of my career and it still could be.”