“Beautiful man”, gushed my companion. “I am completely amazed by the capacity of some human beings to just keep going, no matter what.”
Hamzeh Al Hussein is strikingly handsome. His eyes and his beautiful smile captivate and they held the audience in his one-man performance as they journeyed with him from Newcastle’s infamous Quayside back to the Syrian mountainside village of childhood via the Jordanian refugee camp and some time in Paris, cadging lifts from ambulances on the Champs Elysee.
I shouldn’t laugh and I shouldn’t approve. I am charmed into wanting to forgive this man, forgive him – anything.
Curious Monkey is the North East’s first theatre company of sanctuary and this incredible organisation which works with under-represented communities to include, give voice and challenge discrimination has provided Hamzeh with a most fantastic and literal platform to share his truth.
Circles, survival, and connection
Penguin is a play of circles, survival, and connection; from the volunteer in the refugee camp who gave Hamzeh a postcard of the Angel of the North, to the prop of the Angel on the set, to the foolish accident that sees him waking to the sun rising over the Angel – a metaphor of place, of home and a message of life and hope.
Rhythm is a dancer and music pulses through Hamzeh from the beat of the village drums, through his headphones to the nightclubs of Newcastle. Physicality expressed a full stage presence in movement , jumping, crawling, dancing. In a nod to Mr Ben there were multiple changes of coats and hats as the story moved in chapter and time through a set that at once looked like a makeshift tent and an Ikea fitted wardrobe.
Amidst all this change, a constant in every place Hamzeh landed has been prejudice, discrimination and abuse, from the name calling penguin in Syria to Newcastle teenagers filming him like some circus act on their mobile phones. Yet despite this, there is something about the North East that has freed Hamzeh from what others think and say to be able to rejoice in living and to be himself.
“Be more Penguin” Hamzeh tells the audience, taking on his childhood taunts. The mother whose side he never left, who cooked with him, who talked and laughed with him, whose hand he never kissed when he took the flight that transported him from refugee camp to a new life in Europe, named him Hamzeh.
Hamzeh in Arabic means lion, steadfast, strong – and so he is.
He may have been his own hero on his inner and outer journeys, but Hamzeh has not been alone. This is a story too about family bonds and of friendship. Above all is the bond that unites him with his brother Waseem, a voice off-stage, heard unseen, but ever present and sustaining love, courage, and a constancy unsaid; but maybe more than even Hamzeh can himself express.
Penguin has a short run in Newcastle but this show and this story need to be toured from theatre to studio to village hall.
Embrace your shadow penguin. Be more Hamzeh.