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'Rubble' by Suvendrini Lena

An Aluna Theatre and Theatre Passe Muraille co-production

Guest writer Geoffrey Coulter, actor, director, arts educator

When I think of the arts, I revel in its ability to entertain, communicate, inspire, and teach through acting, music, dance, sculpture, and painting. I need to remind myself of how poetry can be just as provocative, just as enlightening. Theatre Passe Muraille, in co-operation with Aluna Theatre’s current production of 'Rubble' by Toronto playwright Suvendrini Lena powerfully transforms poetry into a theatrical event.

Based on the poetry of Palestinian writers Mahmoud Darwish and Lena Khalaf Tuffaha and inspired by the playwright’s own visits to the West Bank, Rubble is set in 2014 against the backdrop of the Palestinian crisis and is as much about the value of art as it is the indomitable spirit its incarcerated, besieged peoples. Five excellent actors portray a family striving for normality, living out the day-to-day beauty and horrors of their country’s recent and ancient past as prisoners of occupation. Despite their hardships and subjugation by their Israeli and Egyptian neighbours, we see the humanity of the people of Gaza and their beautiful power of poetic preservation.

A shockingly realistic set (courtesy of designer Trevor Schwellnus) depicting a bombed-out apartment building with broken concrete and cracked, high walls (for projecting statistics, videos and poetic text in English and Arabic), pieces of cinder blocks strewn about, floor lamps and wooden crates provides the canvas for this extraordinary tale. Interestingly, just moments before the show began I noticed English translations of Arabic poems printed in chalk on the walls of the theatre. An effective choice to encircle the audience, watching a play about poetry, with poetry!

From the ruins of a theatre stage right the narrator, or poet emerges (Roula Said) and speaks directly to the actors, encouraging them to tear up their scripts and beseeching the audience to open our hearts to the poetry of words and music. What follows are multiple short scenes or vignettes illustrating the barbarity and seemingly daily acts of violence heaped on a single family as the Occupation continues.

Excellent lighting (designer uncredited in my program) and video projections by Avideh Saadatpajouh of Arabic poetry projected at select moments on the walls of the set created thought-provoking images as each line of text gracefully falls in a heap creating a visual stockpile of the spoken narrative. The set’s high walls create a wonderful screen for well-placed images of deadly statistics, thoughtful verse, a full moon, buildings collapsing and militant rally cries (“Besiege the Siege”). Creative use of square-shaped spots and high-angled specials create shadows that transport us from apartment to tunnel, to beach to the interrogation room to excavation site. Unfortunately, not every location was obvious to me. More on that later.

Thomas Ryder Payne’s original music and sound effects evoke terror and foreboding with harsh stings, resonant drones, disembodied voices and startling explosions. Traditional Arabic folk music and lulling live vocals from the Poet fully enhance the Palestinian plight. Authentic “everyday” costumes by Negar Nemati contrast nicely to the flowing colourful gown of the “poet”, who’s garbed as a wise sage, the very personification of Palestinian history and culture.

Director Bea Pizano says in her notes this play is “about a people and a land”. Hats off to her for realizing a chilling modern malady and telling it with such visual expression. Excellent blocking and use of the stage made the actors comfortable in their surroundings. Despite this, I wasn’t always sure of the chronology of events, where and when we were. The events of the first scene seemed to take place after an important and shocking event much later in the play. Was this a flashback? Other things were not immediately obvious to me such as the ages of the children as adults are playing the juvenile roles. Additionally, it wasn’t obvious what certain props were, especially in the beach scene with Leila and Majid. These abstractions caused these scenes to lose some resonance for me.

The role of the Poet, who recites in both English and Arabic is commandingly played by Roula Said. Her focussed line delivery, social commentary and political posturing is delicately balanced with her gorgeous singing voice. Though she sings in Arabic (songs which she composed!) her soothing rendering transcends language, her graceful presence a perfect foil to the tumult of the scenes playing out around her.

Laura Arabian plays mother, wife, and archaeologist Leila. Her sensitive portrayal of a matriarch trying to keep her family’s life as “normal” as possible with little food, basic amenities, and questionable shelter. She’s a calming, encouraging rock to her children and loving wife to Majid. Her adept range of emotions – laughter, love, and loss, convinced me of Leila’s bitter reality.

Majid, the family patriarch, and engineer is convincingly played by Sam Khalilieh. A proud man, loving husband and doting father, his monologue of the history of Gaza from 332 AD to the present provides some thoughtful context revealing this land and its people are no strangers to foreign occupation. Gripping!

As Mo, the son with aspirations of playing football for the Al Helal Academy, adult actor Yousef Kadoura (curiously playing a 12-year-old) adds youthful petulance and naivete to the situation surrounding him. His portrayal of personal loss and his struggle to process it reveals his resilience but also the man he will need to become to overcome his physical challenges and fulfil his dreams of life outside the “largest prison on earth”.

Noora, the 16-year-old daughter with rebellion in her heart, is wonderfully played by Parya Heravi. She delivers her lines with staunch resistance to her family’s situation. Yet underneath her hardened shell, she would do anything for her family, even face the adversary head-on to protect what she loves. An invested performance.

Rubble is a poetic tale with political undertones. It forces the actors to engage in rather difficult conversations while invoking the audience to reflect and engage in those same conversations. Sadly, the events of modern-day Palestine are not often in our mainstream media. I don’t remember the last time I heard “Gaza” in prime time. This play’s thoughtful analysis and dissection of poetry in a state of siege give audiences reason to pause. Poetry speaks truth. Art truly imitates life.

'Rubble' runs to March 18 on the Mainstage Space at Theatre Passe Muraille, 16 Ryerson Avenue, Toronto. For tickets, visit

An Aluna Theatre and Theatre Passe Muraille co-production
'Rubble' by Suvendrini Lena

Directed by Beatriz Pizano
Scenography by Trevor Schwellnus
Costume Design by Negar Nemati
Sound Design by Thomas Ryder Payne
Associate Video Design by Avideh Saadatpajough


Sam Khalilieh as Majid
Roula Said as The Poet
Lara Arabian as Leila
Parya Heravi as Noora
Yousef Kadoura as Mo

Abstract Building
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