What an extraordinary and charming play this is, courtesy of De Insomniis Theatre. From the intriguing title to the remarkable story and the sincere performances, Besa captivates in such a way that any weaknesses or shortcomings are easily easily forgiven and in many cases they become endearing features that add to the rustic simplicity of the piece.

An extraordinary and charming play

Elona Gagani is the company’s founder and artistic director. Born in Albania, she grew up in Florence. Hence she wrote Besa in her first language, Italian, and then translated into Albanian and English. It is based on the brave actions of her grandfather who rescued Jewish refugees escaping from Greece in WWII.

It’s 1943, and the predominantly Muslim Albanian population has refused to comply with the orders of the occupying forces to hand over Jews who have fled there for safety. What the Germans have not taken into account is the centuries old tradition of besa, that is deeply rooted in the mindset of the people. It’s a difficult concept to define, but it brings together the ideas of faith and action in a code of honour that must be obeyed and acted upon.

The upstairs theatre at the Drayton Arms provides a suitably confined setting in which to create the sparsely furnished yet intimate home. Here the family gathers and we witness the teasing friction between brother and sister Agimi (Laurent Zhubi) and Merusha (Loresa Leka), who is studying medicine. Meanwhile, Elenor Gagani takes the role of their mother, who focuses on feeding the family and passing on the traditions of their culture, especially when it comes to marriage. Her husband, Besim (Klodian Merriman), somewhat more strictly admonishes the children for their antagonistic behaviour towards each other. Together, he and his wife strive to maintain peace between their son and daughter.

He is also explains to his children the responsibilities that besa places upon them, when a Jewish brother and sister, Jakov (Ethan Richardson) and Sandra (Shiri Noa) arrive in town in search of a safe haven. This is also the cue for a developing love story between Merusha and Jakov who increasingly usurps the position of Flamuri (Laurent Zhubi, doubling in this role), who is madly in love with Merusha, but whose amorous advances are not reciprocated. A safe passage to the USA, via Italy, is found for the Jewish refugees, but not before a major tragedy strikes, while the romances are resolved with the passage of time.

Performances are mixed, but this is essentially an ensemble work with a profound message, and those performing in their second or third language with an array of accents bring a sense of location to the piece that might otherwise be lacking. A couple of things don’t work particularly well. The elements of physical theatre sit uncomfortably in this otherwise naturalistic play and add nothing to the story. As my friend said, “Dancing with chairs is to be avoided at all costs”. Other movement sequences seem redundant and the mourning scene over the coffin, when we already know of the person’s death, is overstretched. With just a little more editing the play could run smoothly in one act, the disruptive interval could be scrapped and the events could run and with heightened intensity. What adds enormously to the mood is Cleo Queene, the solo violinist, who uses the instrument’s lower register to hauntingly accompany the story with tunes rooted in the region.

Besa is an uplifting play that demonstrates how life could be if only all nations had the code of honour that in this case brought Muslim Albanians and Jews together and enabled them to toast each other in peace with “Gëzuar” and “L'chaim”. This, in a devastatingly divided region riddled with generations of conflict rooted in ethnic and religious differences. It also the highlights the plight of refugees, reminding us that migration in such circumstances is not a luxury but a necessity in the struggle to survive.

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The Blurb

It is 1943, and the Albanian population, in an extraordinary act, refuse to comply with the German occupation's orders to turn over Jews who have fled there for safety. What is more, many of these Albanians are Muslim. The assistance afforded to the Jews was grounded in BESA, a code of honor, which still today serves as the highest ethical code of the century.

In this play, we join an Albanian family who host two Jews fleeing from neighboring Greece. Witnessing the extent to which BESA influences their choices, the everyday struggles of a family, and the boundless relationship between Albanian Muslims and Jews, we are reminded in this story how politics usurps honor in the 21st century, and migration is not a luxury, but a necessity to survive.

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