Arcola Theatre – until 19 May
Reviewed by Claire Roderick
Art professor Melissa’s (Sarah Alles) life is stagnating. She cannot paint and seems to survive on a diet of whisky and walnuts. On the night that she decides to end it all, she is interrupted by the arrival of former student Mehdi (Moe Bar-El). They had a tentative relationship before he disappeared for two years. Since then she has married, but Mehdi makes himself at home when he hears that her husband is away on business.
Mehdi is followed by his best friend Khan (Ali Azhar) whose odd behaviour is mystifying until it becomes clear that he is dead and can only be seen by Mehdi. He is caught in the in-between, and the promised virgins are nowhere to be seen.
Marion Bott’s clever writing slowly reveals, amongst Khan’s more mystical meditations, hints about what exactly the two men were doing, revealing the camaraderie they felt as they were recruited and trained by the caliphate, and eventually the horrific weight of guilt the Mehdi is carrying. As Khan talks about the day he died, Mehdi’s mantra of “I choose to forget” becomes weaker and weaker. As he asks Melissa to teach him to paint again, it is unclear if he is seeking redemption or revenge, and his vicious reaction when she discovers his past is both terrifying and the pitiable defensive aggression of a frightened and trapped child.
Bott hasn’t written the men as monsters, recognising the fact that any disenfranchised person is vulnerable to radicalisation, and the danger of Mehdi continuing terrorist acts after his return to Berlin seems very real for most of the play. Melissa’s numbness enables her to look at Mehdi’s choices without judgement, but the deep musings they share can at times feel a little like a Dr Phil/Oprah Winfrey self-help special, although the couple both seem to be on the right path to finding truth and freedom through art by the end of the play. The language can sometimes feel a little correct and overwrought, but that may be down to Bott’s French-German background – every German schoolchild I’ve ever met can form more intricate and grammatically correct sentences than native English speakers – and you soon get into the rhythm of Bott’s writing.
Director Zois Pigadas brings the best out of the talented cast, and with movement coach Jess Tucker Boyd has created beautiful sequences with Alles and Bar-El performing balletic synchronised actions to great effect. The impressive cast all deliver memorable performances and maintain the intensity throughout the play.
A play about returning ISIS fighters may not sound like a barrel of laughs, but Moormaid has many lovely light moments and is an intriguing tale about faith, friendship and moving on.