Marion Bott explores the devastating consequences of radicalisation in her new play, Moormaid, in a production from The Alchemist Theatre Company.

Set in a small Berlin flat, Moormaid centres on art teacher & failing artist Melissa (Sarah Alles), and her ex-lover & pupil Mehdi (Moe Bar-El), who re-enters her life suddenly after a two year absence. The action struggles to gel in the early scenes, as Alles and Bar-El attempt to conjure up chemistry by recalling Melissa and Mehdi’s affair. Momentum gains with the play’s second branch of past-mining, through the introduction of the ghost of Mehdi’s school friend, Khan (Ali Azhar). In one of their boyish exchanges of weed-smoking and chasing girls, their quips drastically shift to beating their chests in a frightening war chant. It is startingly clear where Mehdi has been for the last two years.

Moormaid Arcola Theatre

Ali Azhar & Moe Bar-El (image courtesy of Anika Wagner)

Mehdi’s path is a search of redemption, after his and Khan’s brief but blood-soaked time as soldiers for ISIS. Through Bar-El’s physical heft as he violently tears across the stage, it is desperately clear how conflicted he is, and why; in the play’s most immersive moment Mehdi admits that no one will forgive him for the things he did. Moormaid’s clear message, embodied in the fragile but defiant Melissa, is the clear distinction between artistry and violence, but also how creativity has the power to turn a warrior into an artist and thus redeem them. Khan’s experience in purgatory effectively communicates Mehdi’s cathartic journey in coming to terms with the senselessness of the carnage he inflicted. Mehdi is Khan’s key to release; in turn, Khan is the manifestation of his guilt.

Moormaid Arcola Theatre

Ali Azhar & Moe Bar-El (image courtesy of Anika Wagner)

Unfortunately, this is all inconsistently conveyed. Zois Pigadas’ direction requires more variation – too often the action becomes so hysterical or staccato that the message is lost. Moments of tense silence, where we are expected to fill in the gaps, are misplaced. While Sophia Simensky’s set never satisfyingly unifies with the action, Tim Boyd’s lighting lends gravitas to gentle moments of prayer when Kahn first emerges, or when he and Mehdi march the stage, beating their chests under blinding floodlights.

Moormaid Arcola Theatre

Moe Bar-El (image courtesy of Anika Wagner)

At his imploration, Melissa teaches Mehdi to paint, still unaware of his overwhelming guilt. With the audience as a canvas, she colours his redemption and in doing so heals her own pain. Melissa is also seeking rebirth, but through fragmentary characterisation and unrevealing direction we are never allowed to fully explore what the true root of her anguish is.

A tale of disenfranchised youth and religious fanaticism, Moormaid is a highly relevant and timely play, which can be elevated to a level of excellence by more nuanced, complex performances and more compelling direction.

 

 

★★☆☆☆

Moormaid runs at the Arcola Theatre until 19 May 2018. For further information, please visit the venue website.