A man is buried up to his neck with only a geometrical desert around him – sand dunes made up of boxes and a disc of sun scorching his skin. It looks like a twist on Happy Days, all the more absurdist when the buried man begs his captor to urinate on his face so he can slake his thirst.
The opening scene sets a tragicomic tone, but this is not Beckett’s wilderness. Instead, it is from a moment during the second world war when the Vichy regime extended governance to Tunisia, then living under a French protectorate. The Nazis invaded the country in 1942. The buried man, Victor, is a Jewish prisoner in a labour camp and Youssef, an Arab, is his guard, reluctantly carrying out orders while sympathetic to Victor’s suffering.
The Nazis, or “blonds” as they were locally known, brought terror upon the Jewish population and dangled the promise of self-governance over Muslim Arabs, some of whom were wooed by the dream of independence to become allies.
Playwright Josh Azouz views the alliances and betrayals between the Jews and Muslims of Tunis though the prism of one friendship circle. Victor (Pierro Niel-Mee) and Youssef (Ethan Kai) are childhood friends, and Azouz deftly captures Youssef’s overarching loyalty while also showing us his slide into collaboration, along with his wife, Faiza (Laura Hanna). There is also Victor’s wife, Loys (Yasmin Paige), whose steely confrontation with a predatory Nazi commander forms the play’s central intrigue.
Directed by Eleanor Rhode, the show has a quirky comedy which is artfully combined with the deadly serious drama of Jewish persecution, so that we feel both the story’s humour and tragedy. The Nazi occupiers give themselves comic monikers – Grandma, Little Fella – and when a fight breaks out between Victor and Youssef, they pull each other’s ears and it never feels entirely serious. But there are moments of reported violence that leave us frozen: Grandma’s love of torturing his captors; Victor’s story of a friend at the camp who was condemned to sleep in a hole and turned to a block of ice by morning. Victor emanates shame as he describes sucking on the ice to relief his thirst.
The quartet of actors playing the friends are compelling and Azouz’s script lays bare the finer tensions between them, as well as arguments about Zionism and the paradox of finding a home in Palestine – an unknown territory to Victor and Loys. “We moved out of the [Jewish] quarter because we didn’t like Jews,” says Loys bathetically to Victor’s suggestion they go there.
Adrian Edmondson’s Grandma is the most cartoonishly drawn character. Hobbling on a walking stick because of a knee injury, the actor has more than a touch of Ken Dodd in his bug-eyed and perennially smiling portrayal of an eccentric psychopath. As unsavoury as he seems, Grandma lacks enough threat and fearful power in his exchanges with Loys.
Max Johns’s nifty set is almost entirely constructed of boxes that variously open up and conceal secrets. There are times when the pace flags and the plot’s plausibility feels over-stretched at times, but this is a lesser known side of Nazi history, delivered with nuance, and it is an achievement that the play keeps both its strains of humour and horror running side by side until the end.
At the Almeida theatre, London, until 18 September