It’s as if the beloved wartime movie Casablanca (1942) has been hijacked and refashioned by a consortium of gifted wackos. Watching Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied Tunisia is like looking at similar material through a pane of crazed glass, with the Nazi yen for “Lebensraum” (living space) taking the Reich into the desert regions of North Africa and an encounter with different kinds of Resistance fighters. The effect is at once deeply shocking and oddly elating. Josh Azouz’s piece goes for broke: it draws on energies that the director, Eleanor Rhode, and her wonderfully on-song company of actors approach in a spirit of responsibly impious revelry.
The darkly comic historical drama begins with a “comfort break” of sorts. A very discomfiting one. The Nazis order young North African Youssef (Ethan Kai) to pee down onto the face of Victor (Pierro Niel-Mee), a Jewish man who has been buried in sand and almost burned alive in the hot sun. Youssef is desperate with apologies but knows he has to go ahead. Victor is an old friend and Youssef is a softie really, but he is collaborating with the regime because he has his peacetime job as a sommelier to think about and his future.
The production is superbly designed. A stack of wooden crates are flapped open to suggest various, sometimes tiled interiors and the changing mood of the desert is captured on a large wafer disc that shifts in colour from a diluted pistachio green to a fiery copper. The “plot” – which involves the fact Victor and Youssef are sweet on each other’s wives – is ingeniously elaborate but the theme is profoundly simple. One Upon a Time is an argument against essentialism – the fatal belief, say, that you can sum up a Jewish person by slapping a Yellow Star on him or her. The creed tends to cut both ways; it works on an equal opportunities basis. Accordingly, the play finesses this idea by using characters who veer from stereotype in multiple non-conforming ways.
Chief of these is Adrian Edmondson, whose “psycho” commandant has been nicknamed “Grandma” because he enjoys knitting woollies for his men. He is lost and lovelorn because he married the wrong woman. Due to a knee injury, Edmundson was hobbling around on a stick during last night’s performance. In fact, this suits the eccentricity of the beatifically oddball character he projects, with the finicky diction and the air of treating everything as though, with Nazism exiled to the desert, life has become a kind of thought-experiment.
Victor’s wife Loys (beautifully played by Yasmin Paige) remarks at one point that she became a 20-ciggies-a-day girl from watching a Bette Davis movie. She and the libidinous Faiza (Laura Hanna) who is married to Youssef, converse with a sexual explicitness that you would not have found in the films of the era, and maybe Loys is a touch anachronistic in the witty, sly, feisty eloquence with which she makes the case that totalitarianism is standardising whereas actual human beings are versatile and various and occasional one-offs.
The plot depends on the tension generated by the fact that in a world where the population is full of collaborators and where even some of the Nazis are covertly off-message, it’s hard to distinguish who can be trusted. There are car keys and the chance of escape. No plot spoilers here but, what I will say is that Azouz’s dazzlingly talented play does for the Nazis what Armando Iannucci’s hilarious Death of Stalin did for their Communist counterparts: it satirising their incompetency and inconsistencies to brilliant effect.