Review: Moormaid at The Arcola Theatre

The fact that the opening scene, in which disenchanted art teacher Melissa tries to hang herself with her favourite scarf, isn’t the most dramatic moment in Moormaid immediately tells you quite a lot about Marion Bott’s play. When her attempt to end it all is interrupted by the arrival of Mehdi, a former student who stood her up for dinner two years earlier and hasn’t been seen since, things start to get really messy – in more ways than one.

Photo credit: Anika Wagner

This is partly because Melissa (Sarah Alles) has since got married to Simon, who’s away a lot for work and with whom she maintains a cheery but detached phone relationship; they sound more like old friends who haven’t seen each other in a while than two newly-weds. But complications arise mostly because Mehdi (Moe Bar-El) isn’t alone; he’s accompanied by his own personal ghost – his friend Khan (Ali Azhar), who he abandoned in the desert while they were both off fighting for IS.

This fact, revealed partially in Act 1 and confirmed in Act 2, feels at odds with the mercy mission that brings Mehdi to Melissa’s apartment, and the way in which his intervention “saves” her not only from her suicide attempt but potentially also from a meaningless, joyless future. This in turn prompts an interesting debate: is it possible for someone who’s been radicalised – and acted on it – to still be the person their friends and family once knew, and is redemption ever really an option for someone who’s committed such acts of brutality? Mehdi’s left the desert behind and seems to feel real remorse; on first meeting he’s a nice enough guy, and his adoration of Melissa appears to be genuine, if a little overbearing and dysfunctional (he calls her “Miss Darwood” far more than he uses her first name, and essentially asks to revive their teacher-student relationship by requesting painting lessons in exchange for the pleasure of his company). And yet he also admits to being a killer, and there are a couple of explosive, unsettling moments in Act 2 where we really believe it – all credit to Moe Bar-El’s excellent and chillingly convincing performance.

Mehdi isn’t the only one who’s complex and contradictory, however; all three characters are more than they first appear, and this is reflected in their sensitive portrayals from not only Bar-El, but also Sarah Alles and Ali Azhar, all making their UK debuts in convincing style. After the initial shock of seeing him, Alles’ Melissa somehow maintains an air of dignified authority despite the predicament in which Mehdi finds her, and the chemistry between the two is very believable. As Khan, Ali Azhar brings a different kind of energy to the room; there’s a restless, pent-up anger and hurt over what’s happened to him, and constant reminders of where he’s been and what he was doing – but there’s also a playful and surprisingly likeable side to his character, which further blurs the line between friend and terrorist.

Photo credit: Anika Wagner

Director Zois Pigadas takes Bott’s script and gives it an additional artistic twist, with Melissa and Mehdi painting each other’s bodies and engaging in dizzyingly hypnotic movement sequences as the tension between them builds and, finally, erupts. Some of the cultural references – specifically to “the androgynous” – are perhaps a bit on the obscure side (they went over my head, anyway), but fine performances and an intelligent, balanced portrayal of radicalisation and the psyche of a terrorist make Moormaid well worth a look.

Moormaid is at the Arcola Theatre until 19th May. It’s best to check with the theatre before booking if you have a nut allergy, as walnuts are consumed throughout the performance.


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