Don's Diary

February 2, 1996

FRIDAY. All-night technical preparations in London for our touring student production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which we are taking to the West Bank and Gaza. Unsettling arrival in Israel: immigration official grills company manager until British Council deputy director intervenes. Welcome from council staff disrupted by independent film crew planning a comparison between our A Midsummer Night's Dream and Ashtar's Palestinian version. Elude film crew but performers' ramble into tunnel leads to confrontation with Israeli soldiers and their guns.

SATURDAY. Jerusalem to Nablus. Set stranded at airport due to Sabbath observation is freed. British Council directors, film producer, and company managers negotiate ground-rules for filming. Warm reception from English faculty at Nablus. Venue is unfinished classroom with plastic sheeting on two sides, but boasts a purpose-built stage. Head of English has a quiet word on the nature of male-female physical contact: slight changes will need to be made.

Students gather as we unpack costumes, test sound tapes, and position the lanterns. At lunch, discover that Dr Shkaki (leader of Islamic Jihad) was assassinated in Malta. Show is cancelled but asked if we can return on our free day and perform then?

SUNDAY. Company decides unanimously to return and perform in Nablus. Coach to Birzeit University: a sea of crossed black flags and student strikes in commemoration of Dr Shkaki. Bus and driver do not have appropriate permit to enter Jerusalem, so are in danger of being stranded here. Try to settle performers and find temporary store for equipment as film crew vie for shots and interviews. Blazing row between film crew and company managers. Actors nervy but rise splendidly to the occasion. Jubilant post-show discussion. Birzeit University English Club T-shirts modelled on bus by enthralled performers.

MONDAY. Return to Nablus. Enthusiastic reception. Atmosphere resembles Elizabethan playhouse as audience jostle and comment on the play; unexpected guests clamber over the partition and under the plastic sheeting to catch a glimpse of the Fairy Kingdom. Israeli jets and the intoning of the Koran compete with courting lovers. Exuberant, noisy post-show discussion. Company deeply touched by head of English's post-show speech: so often, he says, they are resigned to disappointment, so they are thrilled that we did return. Women keen to discuss Hermia's plight; men ask why we didn't bring a tragedy: "we've been living in a tragedy since 1948". Back in Jerusalem, we mull on the travel constraints for residents of the Occupied Territories, and our inability to repay our hosts for their generosity.

TUESDAY. Bethlehem. Bethlehem University resembles American campus with plazas and the sports hall which is our stage. More than 500 students drift in; many disappear for lectures and, to the performers' surprise, later return. Rapt attention as Flute blunders on and Titania showers affection on the transformed Bottom.

WEDNESDAY. Hebron University. Venue is half-finished classroom. Arctic conditions: off-stage performers huddle in their coats. A good performance, but wall is on verge of collapse by end. In Ramallah, company enjoy Ashtar's Palestinian adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, but question appropriateness of Titania's serpent impersonation.

THURSDAY. Jerusalem to Gaza. Bus arrives two hours late, so goodbyes at Hebron are all too short: photos and a presentation of elegant Hebron oil lamps. Company nervously hand passports to young, gun-toting Israeli soldier at Eretz checkpoint.

Our coach has Jerusalem number plates, so cannot go into Gaza. Unload and carry everything across no man's land. Load new coach with Gaza number plates.

Venue is the magnificent Shawwah Centre. More than 500 students from three universities are expected, so Shawwah technicians suspend a sea of microphones.

FRIDAY. Gaza. Workshop with all the actors for the first time. Awareness of historic occasion: the first Shakespeare in Gaza. Intense, enthusiastic post-show discussion. Return to hotel to find Israeli prime inister Yitzhak Rabin has been shot.

SATURDAY. Gaza to Tel Aviv. Visit to United Nations refugee camps which still have open sewers. Tin roofs held in place with concrete shards vie with beautifully hand-painted doors. Return to Shawwah Centre to load up bus for the last time. At the Eretz checkpoint, British Council director puts a halt to the film crew's surreptitious shooting.

Atmosphere at Tel Aviv airport very tense. Film crew are last seen escorted off by Israeli security guard after attempting to film. Questioned for hours. We arrive at Roehampton: no electricity and no heating. Perchance we dream when we presume there is a "developed" and "developing" world?

Teachers in the department of drama, Roehampton Institute London and co-directors of Midsummer Night's Dream acted by Roehampton students and recent graduates.

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