Arafat In Therapy and its creator, Jeremy Bracka, came highly recommended. “He’s like a Jewish Chris Lilley,” I was told. And so he is. He might not have quite achieved Lilley’s slickness, but this is a live show, not television, and he plays all the characters, which are many.
The idea of Yasser on a psychiatrist’s couch (joined later by Shimon Peres) is funny on paper and it’s equally proves so, but amidst the humour are some acute, evenhanded and deeply human observations about the Middle East and the “peace process” between Israel and Palestine, in particular. Perhaps this is because Bracka straddles two worlds that, at least at first glance, might seem utterly at odds with each other: he’s a human rights lawyer, as well as a comedian and satirist.
But before launching headlong into the political milieu, Bracka backgrounds us with his own story of growing-up in Caulfield, surrounded by a colourful coterie of Egyptian and Polish relos, like his Uncle Herschel, fond of accusing his nephew of being a putz and a schmuck. With relatives like that, who needs enemies? His characterisations are rich and mine every, all-too-recognisable (at least for those of us of Jewish descent) comic nuance. You won’t find as tears-to-the-eyes side-splitting, this side of Woody Allen or Seinfeld, with one’s family’s poisonous barbs regarded with nostalgia, affection and even respect, despite years in therapy likely required to reconcile them.
Bracka isn’t only merciless and deprecating where his family’s concerned. He throws caution and political correctness to the wind in declaring Chanukkah and Peach the Jewish holidays of spit, while grossly (the operative word) exaggerating their guttural pronunciations. Nothing is off limits. Nothing. ‘It’s not your schwitz, it’s Auschwitz!’, Peres declaims to Arafat; in one dangerously dark, intensely pithy line glossed over with farce, reminding the Palestinian side the Jews know suffering better than most, but at the same time reminding Jews they should remain all the more averse to anyone and everyone’s suffering, as a result and that while the Holocaust should never be forgotten, it’s no explanation or excuse for anything that takes place now. Bracka even goes so far as to discuss Zionism as a disease, albeit one he admits he still suffers from and not without cause. So, while some of it’s incidental and throwaway, when he returns, time and again, to key protagonists in the Israel-Palestine nexus, it’s anything but. In a video sequence, he becomes a female television presenter, of the ilk one might see on SBS, or Al Jazeera, interviewing Peres, who speaks only in bromides, abstraction and, finally, downright gibberish. As Arafat, he has you laughing out loud before he even opens his mouth, as he has the slack-jawed posture down pat. His mockery of Middle East politics, its political class (lacking) and the interminable, intractable bureaucracy that is the UN knows no bounds. But then, to a lesser or greater extent (greater), it’s self-mocking. And of course, having lived and worked in Israel in the service of diplomacy, he knows what he’s talking about and it’s patent the disingenuousness of it all makes him not only cynical, but despairing. As he points out, it falls to people to make real peace; their masters only make pieces of paper.
As much as Bracka is a gifted and versatile performer, he’s an even better writer. He’s brutal, with a capacity for one-liners that could be used for laser surgery: ‘I inherited my father’s back hair and my mother’s testicles’. The direction isn’t as tight as it might be and the set’s shoddy. The video interlude drags on a little handsome things get a little silly. But, in the scheme of things, these are trifles. There are too many strong points to waste time quibbling. One of my personal faces was the enterprising and characteristically self-aggrandising South African balabusta (or ballbuster, perhaps) who’s founded Socialites Without Borders.
There’s some irony in the show playing mainly to Jewish audiences. I took a Syrian friend who spluttered as raucously as I and who rightly pointed out the show would get as many laughs in Lakemba as Lindfield, thanks to Bracka’s ridicule of both sides of the conflict in question. At the same time, there’s a poignant, almost poetic thread, by way of an intermittent conversation between two authors; one Israeli, the other Palestinian. It’s a gentle, disarming way of presenting cogent arguments, on both sides, and persuading us to remain patient, compassionate, empathic and open to hearing about each other’s views, customs, wants, needs and hardships.
This isn’t a one-man show, it’s a 20-man-and-woman show. Jeremy Bracka is all of them and a whole lot more, besides.
The details: Arafat In Therapy played the Parade Theatre on July 10-14.