Love and loyalty go hand in hand in Amir Nizar Zuabi’s drama I Am Yusuf And This Is My Brother, the destructive effect of war making both shine brightly in the darkness.
A canvas covers the Young Vic stage. With ropes attached at its corners it resembles a vast, horizontal sail, impotent without wind to fill it. On and in and around the sail the tale of a small village is played out.
At its centre is Yusuf, played endearingly by Amer Hlehel, a man whose childishly naive and exuberant view of life leads him to be singled out by the locals as odd. His eccentricity is enough of an excuse for a father to forbid the marriage of his daughter Nada to Yusuf’s brother Ali. They could run away, but that would mean Nada leaving her family.
When the UN makes the announcement – via radio, highlighting how distant from the affected nation the decision makers were – that Palestine is to be divided, everything changes as loyalty, love and honour is tested when the world around them starts to disintegrate.
Rather than delve deeply into the political machinations of the decision to split Palestine, I Am Yusuf And This Is My Brother focuses on its devastating effects on single characters and communities, highlighting where their loyalties lie. As likeable as Paul Fox’s British soldier Rufus is, he can’t wait to abandon the people he is suppose to protect and head home to Sheffield. The intellectual Nagi, who has spent much time trying to educate Yusuf, shows loyalty to his country is everything. While Ali risks all for the love of Nada.
With half the production performed in Arabic, surtitles are projected onto an old bath suspended high above the stage, making it occasionally difficult to follow both the text and the performance. Even so, it is hard not to fall for the cheeky Yusuf and worry for his safety, and the image of an old man carrying a fruit tree that he has nurtured on his back is striking.
In Zuabi’s published introduction to his play, he says he has a responsibility to the people who lived through the events of 1948, not to let their lives disappear into dream or legend. While much of his writing is poetic to the ear, there is little of the magic of legends in the dirty, sodden truth of his characters’ stories.