- The Beloved by Amir Nizar Zuabi
Three great religions share the story of Abraham binding and nearly sacrificing his son. In his new play The Beloved, Amir Nizar Zuabi imagines what happened after father and son come down from the mountain. A co-production among the Bush Theatre, the Young Vic, the Palestinian theatre company ShiberHur, and KVS Brussels, The Beloved explores the psychological scars wrought upon Abraham’s son after surviving his traumatic event. Zuabi’s anachronistic hallucination of family dysfunction walked a fascinating line between inclusivity and alienation. Ultimately, this intense allegorical drama succeeded in creating a provocative and haunting production that crackled with dramatic intensity even as it questioned the sanity and sanctity of people who claim to talk with God.
Names matter when dealing with the important issue of lineal succession. The Beloved integrated elements of the story from the Qur’an and Genesis, such that devotees of each might still claim ownership. For example, Zuabi’s decision not to provide names to any character except for Abraham opened the possibility that the sensitive young son brought back from the mountain could either be Isaac, as the Jewish and Christian traditions believe, or Ishmael, as Muslims interpret. Abraham’s wife, played with gusto by Rivka Neumann, could either be Sarah or Hagar, the mothers of Abraham and Ishmael, respectively. Characters referred to the mountaintop setting for the ritual sacrifice both as Morwa, as stated [End Page 111] in the Qur’an, and Moriaha, as described in Jewish scripture. In addition to keeping multiple versions of the story alive, the deliberate ambiguity regarding names fostered a pleasingly allegorical quality, enhancing the play’s mythical and archetypal status. Through these careful choices, Zuabi, who also directed the production, invited Jews, Muslims, and Christians to enter into the story and see it through their own faith. The approach helped the audience to recognize that the potential lessons of the story and the event itself are not necessarily “owned” by any one religion.
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Enticing steps toward universality only go so far; many deviations from the ancient story created new tensions and emphasis. The contemporary setting stood out as the most obvious departure. From Abraham’s khaki work pants, to his daughter-in-law’s print sundress, to the industrial butcher hooks dangling from the ceiling, costumes and properties suggested modern times. Similar to anachronistic productions of Shakespeare, these out-of-time touches flavored the classic text with modern sensibilities. Perhaps because of the nationality of the playwright, The Beloved arguably showed more empathy with politically marginalized players in the ongoing Middle Eastern saga. A reference to frequent drone attacks stood out as one clear anachronistic indicator of perceived oppression at the whim of more powerful yet disconnected external forces: “The sky is full of drones—small metallic birds that people operate sitting in rooms deep underground halfway across the planet.”
This is not to suggest that any perspective—religious, political, or moral—appeared blameless. Far from portraying a man of firm conviction and un-yielding faith, veteran actor Makram Khoury played Abraham with frustrating ambivalence. He vacillated throughout the production, exuding shame but claiming innocence. Did Abraham bring his young son to the mountain for the purpose of human sacrifice, as his wife and son believe, or was he simply trying to toughen up his sensitive young son with a father-and-son camping trip, as he claims? Did an angel of God actually intervene on the mountain as scripture dictates? This Abraham denied, but he might be lying, perhaps embarrassed after the fact by his blind obedience to intangible forces. Even if Abraham’s intentions were holy, the latent harm enacted on the psyche of his son can scarcely be described as desirable.
Act 2 introduced the audience to Abraham’s son as an adult; he is completely disconnected from...