Thursday, 29 May 1997
Empty Shells by Ramez Tabit, May 29, 1997
At Universal Theatre 2 until June 7, 1997
Reviewed by Kate Herbert around May 28, 1997
Ramez Tabit's Empty Shells, a play about the war in Lebanon, touched me in unanticipated ways. It is not sentimental but the universal experience of war and dislocation resonates like a stone in a pond. We couldn't stop talking about it.
The research-based text remains imagistic and evocative without reverting to the informational. The most potent scenes are drawn from Tabit's own experience as a 13 year old in Lebanon.
˘Ahmed and three friends crawl through gunfire to collect empty shells to sell. Their blase attitude to danger is a bizarre but common reaction. But war is no longer a game. He vomits after seeing the horrific dismemberment of Christians.
This highlights a premature coming-of-age. A few months ago the boys were playing marbles and planning to build a boat to sail away. Now one is a soldier, another is shot, a third leaves the Muslim region with his Christian family and finally, in a superbly written, dramatic and tense scene, Achmed's family escapes to Australia.
The authenticity of the stories gives weight and integrity to the piece and the five actors in multiple roles bring freshness and commitment to the material and the lives they personify.
Nicholas Cassim is a warm, natural Achmed. Nadia Coreno is impassioned as his truth-seeking sister. Carmelina di Guglielmo and Senol Mat are versatile as the parents and two boys. Tabit himself is powerful and striking as the manipulative military commander. His terrifying plausibility reminds us that everybody believes their cause is right.
Patricia Cornelius' direction tilts away from the inherent naturalism of the dialogue without losing its intensity, balancing the real with the abstract by delivering scenes directly to the audience, using stillness or stylised action.
The content supports the piece despite a few flat spots, some distracting back- projections and a cumbersome unnecessary set (Clifton Dolliver) of painted walls.
Empty Shells is not simply a worthy political statement. It has joy, humour, passion and an edge of irony. "Who is fighting on our side today?" It reminds us that there is "nothing heroic about war" which is full of "arguments about religion, nationalism and money."
Too often one leaves the theatre unaffected but Tabit's play reverberates. It is about all migrant cultures, all war zones but, even more importantly, it is about the human condition.