Theatre should challenge us. All theatre, as with all narratives, are inherently political, but some are more overt in their presentation than others. Jerusalem is perhaps one of the most politically contentious cities (and subjects) in the world, so the discussion of this holy city in any play will always be in someway contentious, and given the the recent and ongoing events in Gaza, this is even more the case than ever. Avital Raz’s choice, as an Israeli, to name the piece My Jerusalem is a provocative one, but as the show unfolds, it becomes clear that this title is a subjective one; this is a solo performance that is self aware in its biases and individual perspective.
Created in response to the controversy and themes that arose from her 2013 song, The Edinburgh Surprise, My Jerusalem is an autobiographical, multi-media show that explores performer and musician Avital Raz’s life and her relationship with her home city and state. The original song is woven throughout the piece, bookmarking the chapters of Raz’s non-linear recollections as she occupies the liminal space of her paired down stage. Footage and video montages from the song’s music video and film that was created by Chris Davis, and still images of Jerusalem by Jimmy Spaceman are projected upon Raz, washing her and her space with the potent imagery of drunken fumblings, sacred architecture and nocturnal Edinburgh streets. It is a visually and audibly beautiful piece of theatre, with Raz’s gorgeous vocals making her starkly blunt lyrics all the more shocking. Her prose is just as brutally honest and unflinching, offering us this complicated, often murky and conflicted view of her life and growing up in Western Jerusalem.
This is, in many respects, an uncomfortable watch. It is a beautifully crafted show and Raz’s talent as a performer is unquestionable, but there are some difficult truths and flaws within the piece. It is intentionally provocative, and Raz’s relationship with Israel and Jerusalem are complex. She does not shy away from the failings and bigotry she has seen shown by many Israeli’s – the sequence, from which the show gets its title, where an orthodox Jewish woman berates a teenage Raz for dressing in “immodest” clothing is particularly unsettling – and she is unflinching in her recollections of the systemic sexism that pervades the Israeli military and other institutions. Yet, the song that flows at the heart of this piece remains inherently problematic; the sexual encounter between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man in a bedroom in Edinburgh remains consensually murky at best, and I can see why many critics felt it perpetuated the stereotype of Palestinian male aggression. What is probably intended to be a clever subversion of real world events diminishes the horrors and systematic violence Palestinians are facing, and though there is nothing black and white about the events that have and are taking place in the Middle East, this felt like an ill judged creative choice. Though it is a fascinating piece of theatre, My Jerusalem is far from perfect. It left me thinking, as a child of a great colonial power, now should be the time for colonised voices to be lifted, and that despite all of Raz’s criticisms of her country, whether one’s own cultural biases can ever be truly wiped clean from one’s work.