Taher Najib's In Spitting Distance is the latest installation in the Barbican 'bite08' series, mini theatre pieces with short runs and performance duration. In Spitting Distance is a highly charged one-hour, one-act, one-man show performed by the outstanding Khalifa Natour.
In turns dark and humorous, and often both, the storyline revolves around the experience of an Arab man with two surnames, carrying an Israeli passport, who tries to fly to Tel Aviv from Paris on the unfortunate date of September 10th, 2003. This farcical circumstance interweaves the reality of barefaced post-9/11 racism with the narrative of a Palestinian-Israeli man who has made the choice to leave his Parisian lover and return to his homeland because if he is too removed from the terror, he fears he will no longer understand it. He must pay his 'personal debt to the chaos.'
The set is sparse, with no props save the green surtitle LED screen above, yet with Natour's energy, all that is necessary is his body's physical and emotive engagement with the space as he simulates bicycle riding around Paris, navigating the streets of Ramallah, waiting on airport benches, being led by security down the aisles of a plane. The play is in Arabic, and while this does lend a much more authentic feel for the character, the surtitles are unfortunate because you never want your eyes to leave Natour's. His performance is so engaged, guttural, and so richly felt that it's nearly impossible to look away from him. He gesticulates, he spits, he wails, he moves in closer to whisper, intimating his words directly at you, and his face runs with the sweat of an hour's nonstop engagement with this narrative.
We learn of the difficulty of a Palestinian who has undergone Intifadas, survived bombs, death, and ceaseless colonialism, who must now endure naked discrimination, too. Perhaps worst of all, though, is the question mark of what a homeland can be if it is one that has been consistently and violently jerked out beneath one by countless invaders. When Natour chills the air with the pointed honesty of the question, 'What is it in us that begs the orgasmic pleasure of invaders?' we must ask the same. He ruefully continues 'My homeland is defined as a pillow I put under my head each night.'
One hour can only give so much of a glimpse, but Najib's honest script sheds redeemable insight into a topic no longer ignorable. When Natour sees on television for the first time the planes strike into the World Trade Center, it is as though you, too, are experiencing that horror for the first time. Natour takes his bows all too soon, because after spending an hour with his heartfelt, deeply personal narrative, you can't help but want more from him. In Spitting Distance is an honourable, personal examination of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that manages to move and provoke without descending into polemical sermonising.
In Spitting Distance is directed by Ofira Henig and runs at the Barbican from May 7 – 17, Mon-Sat 19:45. Tickets £12 . Photograph of Khalifa Natour by Gerar Alon.