You Can Handle the Truth
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You Can Handle the Truth

Photographer Nir Bareket faces down a tragedy in his family’s Palestinian past with Pandemic Theatre’s They Say He Fell.

Nir Bareket stands in front of a family portrait that inspired his memoir turned play They Say He Fell   Photo courtesy of Pandemic Theatre

Nir Bareket stands in front of a family portrait that inspired his memoir-turned-play They Say He Fell. Photo courtesy of Pandemic Theatre.

They Say He Fell
Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace (16 Ryerson Avenue)
Runs to Oct. 18
$25 – $30 (Sundays PWYC)
4 Stars

The late Toronto photographer Nir Bareket shot pictures of many theatre productions over the years, so it’s only fitting that he should have chosen a play as the vehicle to explore his past. They Say He Fell, produced by Pandemic Theatre in association with Cahoots Theatre Company, is a moving drama based on Bareket’s memories of an older brother, who died when Nir was still a boy.

The Jewish Bareket, who was born in Haifa in 1939, grew up in British-ruled Palestine in the tumultuous years leading up to the founding of the State of Israel. His brother Yossi was a soldier in the Jewish militia and was killed in a flare-up of mob violence emblematic of the historic animosity between Jews and Arabs that continues to play out in Israeli-Palestinian relations to this day. And yet, Bareket (portrayed here poignantly by Steven Bush) says that his mother never blamed the Arabs for her son’s death, having grown up side-by-side with them. Although backgrounded by Middle Eastern politics, this is not a political play, but one about suppressed memories and coming to terms with the past.

Bush’s Nir narrates the tale, which begins like a lecture on the art of photography before focusing on a pair of black-and-white family portraits—one with Yossi, one without—and then zooming in to give us a detailed look at the tragedy that occurred between the taking of those two photos. In the process, we also get an innocent child’s eye view of life during wartime, when British soldiers would join Nir and his buddies for a game of soccer, and a bomb shelter became just another hangout. Then there is Nir’s rose-tinted picture of Yossi, fondly remembered as the good-natured hero who always came to his little brother’s rescue.

But at the heart of the story is a chain of events that led to Yossi’s sudden, brutal death, the links of which the elderly Nir repeatedly revisits and ponders, one by one, imagining how things might have played out differently. With each successive retelling the aperture is opened wider, as it were, and we get a larger view of the situation that would end in horror.

Bareket originally wrote about Yossi in the form of a memoir, before collaborating with playwright Donna-Michelle St. Bernard to turn it into a dramatic work. St. Bernard, whose previous plays include the powerful Salome’s Clothes, seen at SummerWorks in 2013, has shaped the material skilfully. The narrative mimics a photo in development, growing sharper and stronger as more details emerge.

Director Jivesh Parasram and production designer Cameron Davis likewise play with the photography theme: the stage of Theatre Passe Muraille’s little Backspace is crisscrossed with clotheslines that serve to both quick-sketch the child Nir’s domestic world and suggest a darkroom where prints are hung to dry. Parasram also employs some doll puppets and shadow puppetry (designed by Michelle Urbano) to take us back to childhood, and a sound design that subtly evokes the era. Threaded through it is that British wartime classic, Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again,” hauntingly sung by Virgilia Griffith.

The actress is part of a five-member supporting cast that also includes Tom Arthur Davis, Maxine Heppner, En Lai Mah, and Christopher Stanton in various roles. Mah is especially effective as the boyish, easy-going Yossi. The most affecting scene, however, comes late in the play, when an adult Nir meets the soldier (Davis) who escaped the violence that killed Yossi. Davis’s survivor is almost painfully apologetic for having simply had the good fortune to get away. Bush, meanwhile, makes palpable Nir’s efforts to damp down the unfair resentment he feels towards the lucky man who, he feels, should have been Yossi.

Bareket clearly wrote this memoir for catharsis, with the realization that opening the old wound and finally confronting the truth is the only way to begin the process of healing. But he has also used it to remind us that violence only begets violence and our acts will have repercussions for the very children we are trying to protect. Bareket puts it more eloquently: “If we knew our sons could stumble on blocks laid for our enemies, we would spend a lifetime on our knees, removing every stone from the road.”

Pandemic is the theatre company with a sociopolitical bent that also gave us Tara Grammy’s international fringe hit Mahmoud (co-written and directed by Davis), which has just been shortlisted for a Governor General’s Literary Award. To state the obvious, they’re a company to watch. But first of all, watch They Say He Fell. Bareket didn’t live to see the play he inspired—he died in May of this year—but Pandemic and its collaborators have done his memory proud.