Once Upon A Time In Nazi Occupied Tunisia is all about the tangled friendships of Loys and Victor, Faiza and Youssef. The two couples, one Jewish, one Muslim, go way back and the tensions between them are suburban rather than geopolitical. When the play opens, Victor is interned in the labour camp where Youssef is employed, and both are overseen by Grandma, a jovial Nazi sadist. Grandma, who is surprisingly well informed about this quartet, takes pleasure in playing games with its members, pitting them against each other and prodding the tender areas.
Grandma, played by Adrian Edmondson, has the best lines and arguably the only personality in the show. Imbued with Edmondson’s trademark eccentricity, Grandma is urbane and shrewd, mischievous but never quite menacing enough. His dinner with a fearful but defiant Loys is the highlight of the show, and if Grandma’s assertion that the liveliness of the conversation was enough to stir his loins seems a little exaggerated, there is certainly more cut, thrust and tension here than in any other scene.
The show strives for satire, but its satirical target is hard to discern. The comedy is mild at best and isn’t properly counterpointed by fear or darkness; whereas Edmondson plays almost entirely for laughs, the rest of the ensemble struggle to find the right balance between sincerity and flippancy. Being a Jew under Nazi occupation must have been utterly terrifying, but you would hardly know it from Once Upon A Time In Nazi Occupied Tunisia. We see humiliation and suffering, we hear about brutality and the desperate need to flee, but none of it causes vicarious adrenaline to rise. There is a lack of urgency that manifests in characters talking far too much and every scene running several minutes longer than it should. Intellectually we know that Victor and Loys are in a perilous situation, but the play doesn’t make us feel it.
If safety is one of the things at stake here, love is the other. We are told that the two lovers have a past together, and perhaps they will have a future together. What they certainly don’t have is any chemistry, either physically or in the way they talk to each other. To see them in a room together they could be brother and sister. Once again, the play tells us something but doesn’t succeed in making us feel it. These are no Rick and Ilsa.
As a visit to North Africa the show is a triumph. Tunisia, in the hands of designer Max Johns and lighting designer Jess Bernberg, looks delightful. Even the baking desert. Light wooden boxes are configured into sun-bleached sand dunes, a tiled dining room in moonlight, an orange-scented courtyard. The elements are simple yet the effect is powerful. Also powerful are some of Loys’ comments on the experience of being a refugee and a Jew in exile. There is a moment of passion where she reels off a long list of countries where Jews were welcome…until they weren’t; even those, like Loys, who are ambivalent about their Jewishness. It is a valuable reminder that to be a Jew, in Nazi-occupied Tunisia and for many centuries before that, was to be defined entirely, and to the exclusion of all else, by the religion of your birth. It is also a welcome moment of sincerity and conviction in a play which tries for both comedy and drama but doesn’t consistently achieve either.
Written by: Josh Azouz
Directed by: Eleanor Rhode