Sephardi play explores Nazi stories in North Africa

Josh Azouz’s latest play was reviewed in all the major British newspapers. Although its run at the Almeida Theatre in London has now ended, Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied Tunisia brings a fresh Sephardi perspective to stage drama, writes John Nathan in the Jewish Chronicle:

Josh Azouz, a rare Sephardi British Jewish voice

Whisper it, but it might just be possible that a major new voice has arrived on the British stage. True, at 35 playwright Josh Azouz has been around for a while.  But with his latest work, which goes by the more than faintly familiar title of Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied Tunisia, even he recognises that he and the play might represent something rather rare in this country’s theatre culture.

“There are very few Sephardi British Jewish voices,’ he observes. “So I am interested to explore those stories. But not only those stories of course,” he quickly adds, as if the theatre gods were looking for a reason to pigeonhole him for all time.
They would have a job.  His latest play audaciously conveys life under the Nazis in north Africa but without the ramrod seriousness with which extreme suffering is normally conveyed. More of this later.  For the moment let us dwell on Azouz’s knack for finding subjects that have rarely, if ever, been seen in a theatre.

For example, when his two-hander The Mikvah Project was revived at The Orange Tree last year (before it was ripped from the stage by the pandemic)  the only people who would have seen a play about two Orthodox Jewish men who fall for each other while spiritually cleansing themselves would have been those who encountered the original production at The Yard Theatre in 2015.

So although nobody thinks that as a subject life under the Nazis is unrepresented in stage drama, Azouz’s still stands out. “It’s an opportunity to talk about the war from a Sephardic Jewish lens,” is the way he describes it when we meet on Zoom at the end of a day’s rehearsal at the Almeida Theatre where the play has just opened.

“Actually, I think I should clarify,” he adds..  “I think it is actually a mostly Muslim Arab and a Sephardic Jewish lens. When we think of World War Two and the Holocaust we think of Europe.  I don’t think North Africa has been on stage and I thought, ‘how interesting to explore Arab Jewish relationships at a time just before the creation of Israel.’”

In Azouz’s play that Arab/Jewish relationship is represented respectively by a Jewish and Arab couple who were best friends before the Germans occupied Tunisia.  But under the cruel rule of Nazi officer Grandma (yes, Grandma, but more on character names later) played in Eleanor Rhode’s production by Adrian Edmondson, the friendships come under intense pressure.

Take the opening scene in which Jewish Victor (Pierro Niel-Mee) is buried up to his neck in the Tunisian desert and Arab Youssef (Ethan Kai) is standing over him with orders to urinate on him.  But as awful as Victor’s situation is, Azouz is as interested in absurdity as he is atrocity.  For a start, Yousef is Victor’s best friend.

“When I was reading memoirs from the camps in Tunisia, the Nazis had names like Grandma and Little Feller and Memento. It was their nicknames coupled with the landscape — mountains and deserts full of cacti — that made me think of a Western. That’s sort of where the title came from,” explains Azouz alluding to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti classic Once Upon a Time in the West.

However it is not only the landscape that sets this story apart from most other Nazi occupation dramas.  There is, says Azouz, something funny about it too. “People being buried up to their neck is barbaric. But then I would read [while researching the play] that the Nazis would have to keep rotating the Arab guards because they were getting too friendly with the Jews.  And because the Nazis had names like Grandma, there was something very sort of surreal and silly about it. It was horrific but this was not the mechanical or methodical horror of Europe. It was much more wild.  These Nazis were losing their heads in the desert. There was something of a mirage about it;  something much more haphazard and much more uncertain.”

There was also yet another difference, one that perhaps more than all the others goes to the heart of the play. “The Arab population weren’t willing collaborators in the same way Europeans were,” says Azouz.
In terms of their genocidal objective, the Nazis were most successful in countries where there was an infrastructure to support their objective of annihilating the Jews, Azouz points out.
“Fundamentally the Arab nations in North Africa were not seduced by the Nazis in the same way [as the Europeans].”

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