Love and terror in post-war Palestine

Playwright Pat Rowe was inspired by a real-life incident that took place in the Middle East in 1945 for her new play Jerusalem Tango.

Looking at the conundrum of current Israeli-Palestinian politics, it’s fascinating to hark back to a time when the British were in charge and facing similarly intractable problems.

The 30-year British Mandate in pre-state Palestine, set up after the Second World War, presented a tantalising opportunity to make peace in the area between the rival claimants to that land. It proved more difficult than expected.

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My play opens in 1946 in Jerusalem’s luxurious King David Hotel, which was the Mandate headquarters. The hotel provided a refuge from the heat and mayhem of the outside world, and was a focus for the British and the locals to mingle for work, pleasure, occasional intrigue, and, perhaps surprisingly in those chaotic times, tango dancing.

I wanted to tell a story that would bring that period to life in a relevant way. I decided to take a notorious and well documented act of terror, the bombing of the King David Hotel by Jewish terrorists, or freedom fighters, depending on your point of view, and to use it as a focus for a love story.

Young British Army officer Thomas Wilson is a rising star in the administration; he learns to enjoy tango dancing in the hotel bar with Ziva, a beautiful Palestinian Jew (as they were called before the creation of Israel).

A love affair develops, because of mutual attraction or the desire to obtain military secrets or both. Thomas has been involved in counter terrorism activities, and enjoys friendly relations with his superiors, two contrasting sons of Empire – grammar school educated railway manager Albert Corby, exasperated by attacks on his tracks, and unflappable senior administrator Sir Henry Gordon, who looks back nostalgically to easier days in India. Ziva, an ex-kibbutznik, has lost her mother in enemy action and aligned herself with extremists, despite the influence of her more moderate father Avram who sees the virtue of co-operating with the British.

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It is a heady mix, brought wonderfully to life by the five actors who have valiantly acquainted themselves with this most complicated period.

Leeds actor Jem Dobbs plays Avram, the Russian kibbutznik; Michael Forrest is Corby; Joel Parry, a Manchester-based actor, plays Thomas, and Jenny Leveton is Ziva. Peter Alexander (Emmerdale’s Phil Pearce) plays Sir Henry Gordon.

The characters and incidents are inspired by my reading of the letters and diaries of people who lived at that time, when the British were struggling to cope with the desperation of the refugee Jewish survivors from Europe, trying to enter Palestine, as well as the ever-changing aspirations of their own government, who seemed to have made too many promises to too many people.

The bombing of the King David Hotel was a major turning point. It was considered a disaster by many, including most of the perpetrators, because of the massive loss of life – 91 people were killed, including Arabs and Jews as well as the British.

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It was significant because it accelerated the British decision to leave, and made their continued efforts in the region even more unpopular with the post war cash-strapped British back home.

I wanted to look at that moment, just before the state of Israel came into being, using the focus of a love story, with conflicting loyalties revealing so much of the complex reality.

After I’d written the play I realised that the story of the British in pre-state Palestine has surprising resonances with contemporary reality in many parts of the world. I do not have a political agenda, and it certainly wasn’t my original intention, but it’s hard to avoid certain comparisons, where good intentions struggle to justify an unpopular foreign presence.

Pat Rowe’s list of successes

Pat Rowe’s first play, Toad, premiered at London’s New End Theatre, before going on to be commissioned as a BBC Radio 4 Afternoon Play featuring Imelda Staunton in the lead role.

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The play won an Acorn Award from the Theatre Investment Fund.

Rowe’s play Forbidden, set in Berlin, premiered at the Edinburgh Festival going on to be produced in Ohio and at London’s Hampstead Theatre.

She has written for the Radio Times, Observer, and Guardian.

Jerusalem Tango is at Leeds Carriageworks, to May 26. Tickets 0113 224 3801.