October 30, 2010
Image: Hannah Norris says the play about a young woman’s protest in Gaza is as relevant as ever. My Name is Rachel Corrie is at fortyfivedownstairs from November 3-14.
ACTRESS Hannah Norris knew very little about Rachel Corrie when she wandered into London’s Royal Court bookshop five years ago. She found a script with Corrie’s name in its title simply because it sat on a rather barren shelf designated for ”one-woman plays for a young woman”. She was hooked from the first page; Corrie’s spirited voice could almost have been her own in its compassion, determination and sense of social justice. Norris wanted to learn more.
Woven from emails, letters and diary entries, My Name is Rachel Corrie is the story of a young American university student who, shortly after joining the International Solidarity Movement in 2003, travelled to Israel to protest against the army’s demolition of Palestinian homes. Three months later, days before the US invasion of Iraq, Corrie was crushed to death by a military bulldozer in Rafah, Gaza. The story made international headlines, and for a brief spell The Guardian published Corrie’s final emails to her parents.
The columns came to the attention of British actor Alan Rickman, who approached The Guardian’s Katharine Viner with a plan to turn the story into a play. The two contacted Corrie’s parents, who mailed them 200-odd pages of Corrie’s writing, from teenage diary entries and poetic musings to dispatches from Gaza’s frontline. In turn, these vignettes were combined with an eyewitness account of the events leading to Corrie’s death. The play premiered to great acclaim in London in 2005, the same year Norris began reading the script. It has since been staged around the world, although its New York and Toronto productions were cancelled following accusations of anti-Semitism.
Far from dissuaded by the controversy, Norris and director Daniel Clarke, who saw the play at the Edinburgh Festival in 2006, were instead inspired to mount their own production. With limited knowledge of the conflict and history of the region, the two started researching, though, as Clarke concedes, ”The more I learn, the more I think, will I ever know enough?” For Norris, the script’s firsthand, personal tone lent issues most often captured in sound bites and headlines a dimension that was at once accessible, engaging, intelligent and intensely moving. ”The Palestinian voice really isn’t heard in the Western media,” Clarke says.
Both Clarke and Norris have corresponded with Corrie’s parents, who are now back in court in Israel for the hearing investigating their daughter’s death. When the production premiered at the Adelaide Fringe Festival earlier this year, Norris emailed them reviews of the show.
The play falls into two parts; the first is staged in Olympia, Washington, where Corrie was born and raised. The second unfurls in Israel, when the 23-year-old student has her dreamy ideals shredded by on-the-ground conflict. Corrie was not a saint and Norris says it would have been problematic to portray her as one. Regardless, her legacy lives on; in June this year, when Israeli Defence Forces intercepted a flotilla of ships attempting to break the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip, one of the ships was emblazoned with the name Rachel Corrie. ”The play is more relevant now than ever,” says Norris. ”Something has to be done to resolve the conflict or it will never end.”