You would be forgiven for thinking that the West Bank city of Jenin is about as far from the Wonderland depicted by Lewis Carroll almost a century and a half ago as it’s possible to get.
But an unusual stage production of Alice in Wonderland is currently playing to packed audiences in the Freedom Theatre in Jenin, a city better known for its suicide bombers and a bloody incursion by Israeli troops in 2002.
It opened last weekend, and I had hoped to see a performance this week, but reporting in connection with the Palestine Papers made that impossible. Instead I spoke to the theatre’s artistic director Juliano Mer-Khamis and Zoe Lafferty, who co-directed this production.
Lafferty, a 24-year-old Londoner, who has been in Jenin for the past three months, said the Freedom Theatre’s adaptation of Alice was unconventional. “It’s not a classical interpretation,” she told me this morning. “Ours is about a young girl about to be forced into an engagement that she doesn’t want.”
In Alice’s interlude in Wonderland, “she experiences lots of things people wanting to possess or control her, a world full of conflict. As she journeys through that world, she begins to grow up and learn how to make her own choices.” She comes back to reality a stronger person, said Lafferty.
Alice, said Mer-Khamis, “gives you a lot of freedom of expression. It’s Wonderland – there are no rules, you don’t have to be restricted to a certain narrative. Under the pretext of Alice, we succeeded in tackling and challenging aspects of our society such as freedom of movement and expression and women’s rights.”
The production includes acrobatics, a revolving stage and advanced lighting, which have delighted audiences, Lafferty said. This version of Alice is based on improvisation “the actors had a huge role in developing characters and building the play”.
Each performance so far has played to capacity audiences, with people being turned away at the door. This Saturday there is a special production for Israeli-Arabs coming from cities such as Haifa, Jaffa and Acre.
The Freedom Theatre is the only professional arts centre in the northern West Bank. It grew out of the Stone Theatre, established by Mer-Khamis’s Jewish mother Arna (his father was Palestinian), which was destroyed during the Israeli military incursion into Jenin in 2002. The Freedom Theatre opened in 2006.
The aim, according to its website, was “to empower and give voice to the children of Jenin refugee camp” by developing their self-knowledge, confidence and powers of expression.
The theatre and the city’s cinema which opened last August also provide some respite from the daily grind of life in West Bank cities in the form of culture and entertainment.
Much of Jenin was reduced to rubble during the 2002 incursion in which 53 Palestinians and more than 20 Israeli soldiers were killed. The IDF was intent on rooting out militants, who provided almost half of all Palestinian suicide bombers in the second intifada, from Jenin’s labyrinthine refugee camp.
Lafferty is about to leave the West Bank, heading for Afghanistan to work on a project there. This was her second stint at the Freedom Theatre, experiences which she found enriching.
“I was very naïve about the situation here, I don’t come from a political background. I have learned very basic things. And I’m proud to have worked in a theatre that really engages its participants and audience, and work on a production that challenges society and is about empowerment.”
The Freedom Theatre and Cinema Jenin are sensitive to the mores of the conservative society in which they are based. Objections from some quarters to the projects appears to outweighed by support and appreciation from the local community.
The theatre’s next production, opening in April, is The Lieutenant of Inishmore, by Martin McDonagh, a play about terror, torture and the Northern Ireland peace process. “It will be our biggest scandal yet, I hope,” said Mer-Khamis.
Alice runs through until the end of February and I hope to get up to Jenin to see it before it closes. If I do, I’ll report back.