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Balladeer drags Israeli-Palestinian conflict into focus

Maddy Costa

Writer, director and performer Nir Paldi is provoking theatregoers with his cross-dressing interrogation of Israel's occupation of Palestine.

Ballad of the Burning Star attempts to get to grips with the psychological impact of the ocupation on Israelis and Palestinians. (Alex Brenner)

Certain art forms lend themselves to the Israel-Palestine conflict: epic, despondent, near-silent cinema, say, or interminable sagas about intransigent politics. But a camp, twinkle-eyed cabaret fronted by a man in gold lamé evening dress?

This is Ballad of the Burning Star, a fiercely emotional attempt to understand the complexity of the occupation and its psychological impact on Israeli and Palestinian people.

The show's highly successful run at the Edinburgh festival last summer was contentious, with some people walking out, furious at its perceived anti-Semitism, and one man attempting to halt proceedings for a live debate.

As Burning Star sets off on a United Kingdom tour, Nir Paldi – the man who wrote, co-directed and stars in the show – seems sanguine about how it might be received.

"For me it's not talking about Israel and Palestine. It's talking about my life, where I grew up, and my reality."

Homeland
Born and raised in Israel, Paldi now lives in the UK, and finds that every time he tells someone where he's from, "it's like releasing a nest of wasps in the air. People want to tell you what they think about the situation, and expect you to be articulate about what you think."

Paldi, however, has never enjoyed such confidence.

"Ever since I was a young child, I have felt this lingering pain and disappointment, this anger that what is going on is so stupid. But I could never define what I felt was right without a second later feeling completely different.

"I would feel very angry about the Israeli politicians and people who are not doing anything, and feel very guilty. But a second later, I would feel very angry at the Palestinians who are destroying opportunities and exploding buses. But a second later, I would think, 'Missiles are falling on Israel, why wouldn't they attack back?' These voices drove me slightly insane."

Burning Star is Paldi's struggle to resolve these contradictions.

Detailed research
Work on the show began in 2012 with six weeks of talking, as Paldi described his experiences in Israel to George Mann, his partner and co-artistic director of Theatre Ad Infinitum. Lengthy research was needed, says Paldi, because it's impossible to say anything about Israel without qualifying it with reference to several centuries of history.

The 20-minute autobiographical solo piece Paldi produced as a result taught him two things. First: "I can't be standing there whining about my life – as an Israeli Jew, you lead a normal life."

He lived in the occupied territories as a child in the mid-1980s (his parents, he admits, took advantage of the situation economically), but spent his teenage years in cosmopolitan Tel Aviv. Even his military service passed quietly, as he taught theatre to impoverished children. And the second lesson? He wanted to perform in drag.

"It gives so much freedom," he says. And it's partly the freedom of expression relished by his character, Star, that gives Burning Star its volatility.

"If she sees someone feels insulted, she doesn't give a fuck."

It took two further rehearsal periods to hone the character of Star – who is putting on a performance with musician Camp David – and her troupe of dancers, the Starlets, who wear military gear and are mercilessly persecuted by their imperious frontwoman.

High emotion
The show had a nine-day run in London early last year, and after each performance Paldi held a Q&A to gauge audience reactions. One night, an old German-Jewish woman confronted him. "She was so upset," Paldi says.

"She said: 'My whole family died in Auschwitz.'"

Paldi's family moved to Israel from Eastern Europe around the turn of the 20th century; his great-grandfather is one of Israel's most famous painters.

"It really rocked me, but it also made me feel more resolute. We have to start healing and moving on, looking at ourselves not as victims but [as] people who are recovering. The philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz felt that the Holocaust is the Germans' problem: it's so true, and nobody is close to seeing this in Israel. There is so much blindness going on."

He still visits his family in Israel twice a year and each time he arrives he feels "the repression, this bitterness in the air".

And he's clear what has to happen: "Stop the occupation. Even if it means buses will explode every day, it's better for us as a people." – © Guardian News & Media 2014

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