Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Hannah Khalil: Bitterenders

By | Published on Friday 2 July 2021

Coming up this week via is a staging of Hannah Khalil’s ‘Bitterenders’, a play set in Jerusalem looking at the lives of Palestinians and Israeli settlers forced to live closely together.

Helmed by Maxine Peake in her directorial debut, the play will be livestreamed from Arcola Theatre before being made available on demand, and ticket proceeds will be donated to Medical Aid For Palestinians.

To find out more about the play, and the creative brain behind it, I spoke to playwright Hannah Khalil.

CM: Can you start by telling us a bit about the narrative of ‘Bitterenders’? Who is it about and what story does it tell?
HK: ‘Bitterenders’ is set in Jerusalem where a family of Palestinians have been ordered by a court to share their house with Israeli settlers. So, they draw a line down the middle and live in one part of the house only.

CM: What themes does the play explore?
HK: I try to use this situation as a microcosm – a metaphor for the situation in Palestine / Israel today, and look at it on a very human level, considering what it is like for people having to live in this untenable situation.

CM: What was the inspiration for this play? What made you want to write about this subject?
HK: I saw a video posted online by the Israeli human rights organisation B’TSelem, which showed this very thing happening. It seemed so surreal and a story that would be compelling and dramatic and revealing, so I was immediately drawn to it. Around the same time I watched an old episode of the BBC TV comedy ‘Steptoe And Son’ in which the father and son have a massive bust up and draw a line down the middle of the house because they can’t live together anymore. These two ideas percolated in my mind and the result is ‘Bitterenders’.

I wanted to write this story because I am half Palestinian and have worked in my plays to tell the story of life in Palestine in a way Western audiences might not have previously encountered.

CM: Did you do a lot of research before writing it?
HK: As I say, I have written a lot about Palestine and have family there, so I have a lot of context already. But of course I spent time researching this particular phenomena of Palestinians being expelled from their homes and dispossessed in Jerusalem, or indeed having to share their homes with settlers in contravention of international law.

CM: Have you been involved in the production of the play? Or did you hand over the script and step back?
HK: I’ve been very involved in the casting and creative planning. Maxine Peake, who is directing, is very collaborative and it has been really exciting bringing it all together with her and the team.

CM: Can we talk a bit about you, now? Did you always want to write plays? How did you begin your career and what steps did you take to get to the place you are now?
HK: I always enjoyed writing plays, but at first I thought I wanted to be an actor. I soon discovered I was terrible at it though! And eventually that just fell away and the writing was the thing that stuck.

I couldn’t afford any formal playwriting training so I just wrote loads of bad plays… and slowly got a bit better. I was also really lucky to have the opportunity to meet and collaborate time and again with a community of like-minded artists, some with a similar heritage to me, others not, and we sort of grew up together as artists and learned from one another.

I managed to self-produce a play called ‘Plan D’ at the Tristan Bates Theatre in 2010. It was very hard work as I was working a day job at the time too, but the effort paid off: I was very proud of the production and the play was nominated for the Meyer Whitworth Award. I think that set me on my path. But it was another ten years until I left my day job to become a full-time writer.

CM: What’s the most exciting thing, career wise, that’s happened to you thus far?
HK: I feel very blessed to have worked with some very generous, kind and talented people. A highlight would have to be having my play ‘A Museum In Baghdad’ at the Swan at the RSC in 2019/2020. I have seen so many RSC plays over the years and love that space dearly. I never in a million years dared dream a play of mine would be performed on that stage.

CM: What ambitions do you have for the future?
HK: Something I once took for granted: to be sat in a theatre watching a play of mine with a full, unmasked audience.

CM: To what extent was your work affected by the pandemic?
HK: It was a difficult time personally as I had two plays due to open that were cancelled: ‘A Museum In Baghdad’ was due to transfer from the Swan to the Kiln in London and my play ‘Sleepwalking’ should have been at Hampstead Downstairs in April last year – we were a few days away from tech when the first COVID-19 lockdown began. But I was lucky to work with some wonderful people on digital projects last year which kept my creative spirits up.

CM: What’s coming up next for you? Anything new in the pipeline?
HK: I’m very excited that my first anthology is being published by Methuen in September – it’s called ‘Hannah Khalil Plays Of Arabic Heritage’. I’m also writing new things for the Kiln, the Globe and Soho Theatre, so fingers crossed and watch this space!

‘Bitterenders’ by Hannah Khalil will be streamed live via from the Arcola Theatre on 9 Jul, and will be available on demand from 10-17 Jul. More info and booking links here.

LINKS: | |

Photo: Richard Saker