Electrifying tale of Palestinian poet not to be missed

Amer Hlehel in Taha.

Amer Hlehel in Taha.

By Amer Hlehel, Arts Centre Melbourne, until July 14

The “Big World, Up Close” series at Melbourne’s Arts Centre showcases intimate theatre from all over the globe, and this season kicks off with a piercing tour de force from Palestinian actor Amer Hlehel.

Taha tells the story of celebrated Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali, weaving biography and poetry into a vital, humorous and moving account that embeds the political in the personal.

Through his subject, Hlehel puts a human face on Palestinian dispossession, suffering and flight, and embodies his people’s resilience and zest for life. It’s compulsory viewing for anyone who’s a bit vague on the troubled history of Palestine, or indeed anyone who loves poetry. But beyond its instructive quality and moral purpose, it’s a joy to watch acting of such skill and sustained emotional intensity.

Hlehel is an extraordinary performer.

Hlehel is an extraordinary performer.

The show begins with death and new life juxtaposed. Taha’s parents had several children called Taha before him; all died in infancy. Following the elaborate formulas of Arabic storytelling, the parents seek help from a healer. They change the baby’s name (and the mother’s) in case God disapproves. Nothing works, and the babies keep dying until the parents abandon all hope.

Only then does Taha arrive in the world.

Born in the village of Saffuriya in Galilee, Taha discovered poetry as a boy but became a merchant to support his family. The daily rhythms of life in Saffuriya are more vivid and tangible to the imagination for knowing it will all be destroyed.

… the kind of electrifying, immersive experience that theatre people live for. Don’t miss it.

Danger, loss and heartbreaking events multiply: the horror of being bombed from the sky, the squalor and deprivation of a refugee camp in Lebanon, the shock at being told Saffuriya has been commandeered by the Israeli military and they cannot return home.

Taha is forcibly separated from his beloved and exiled from the land he was born to. Yet the voice never loses its humility and self-deprecating humour – there’s a terrifically funny anecdote about reading poems at a writer’s conference in London – and the poetry itself steps in when the freight of emotion seems too much to bear.

And what poems! After listening to Revenge, how it weaves simple expression into complex thought, or tempers rage at injustice with the wisdom of love, you’ll want to read everything Taha wrote.

Hlehel is an extraordinary performer, and I’m not surprised his powerful solo show is touring internationally. It’s the kind of electrifying, immersive experience that theatre people live for. Don’t miss it.

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