By Courtney Leigh Church, November 8, 2019
Produced by Human Cargo, a collaborative Toronto-based theatre company, “The Runner” sprints onto the McManus Stage at London’s Grand Theatre.
“The Runner” tells the story of Jacob (Gord Rand), a Jewish man working for an Israel-based volunteer organization called ZAKA. ZAKA volunteers work alongside first responders and are trained in search, rescue, and recovery; their mandate is to collect and identify the remains of Jewish people killed in accidents, natural disasters, and attacks because, as Jacob explains, bodies must be buried whole according to religious law.
This task is hard enough as it is; yet, it becomes harder still when Jacob saves the life of a Palestinian woman whom he refers to as “the Arab girl.” He is forced to defend his decision when met with hostility from his fellow ZAKA colleagues, religious leaders, and even his family, who cannot fathom his empathy toward her.
Jacob’s narrative spirals into a series of interconnected anecdotes which follow from his choice to save the girl’s life; a decision that places her humanity above their religious and political differences.
Written by Christopher Morris, “The Runner” impresses in its complexity and care toward its subject matter which is both emotionally taxing and politically tense. Morris’s commitment to accuracy led him on several research trips to the region where he spoke to ZAKA volunteers, refugees, and locals living in both Israel and the West Bank. In his playwright’s notes, Morris writes that his intention was to inform the play by both global anti-Semitism as well as the denial of Palestinian rights in the region itself.
The care with which Morris wrote the play shines through Rand’s portrayal of Jacob. Though the play is told from the perspective of an Orthodox Jewish man, Jacob is a narrator committed to his fellow human being, regardless of difference.
Jacob’s difficulties navigating the terrain between personal morals and systemic hostility are evident in Rand’s frustration and fear. His cadence and personality change almost instantaneously, demonstrating the difficult divisions he carries within. Less evident are the subtle changes in Rand’s mannerisms over the course of the sixty minutes. Over time, his hostility becomes sadness; his anger toward the systems in which he struggles unearths struggles within himself; and, most importantly, “the Arab girl” becomes simply “the girl.”
More impressive, still, is the sheer physicality of the play which takes place entirely on a treadmill. Jacob oscillates between walking carefully and running frantically, though toward – or from – what remains unclear.
As you walk through the McManus theatre doors, Gillian Gallow’s sleek set barely catches your attention. Simple and monochromatic, the set is neither inviting or prominent, especially when the house lights are on. Yet, as you take your seat, you notice subtle changes; the slight music undercuts the chatter around you, and you’ll smell the smoke that slowly wafts through the air before you notice it in your peripheral vision.
Black walls, black ceiling, and black floor engulf a long, narrow walkway on which all the action will play out. The light fades, the chatter dims, and the music – if you can call the eerie sounds which underscore the scene music – remains level as the house is plunged in darkness.
This set works seamlessly with a complex play of lights by Bonnie Beecher and sound design by Alexander MacSween. When Jacob is narrating calmly, he does so under a single, white spotlight. When the tension rises, however, he dips in and out of light and shadow.
Though a monologue, Jacob is seemingly interrogated by other floodlights that grasp him in their violent glare. As the intensity of the narration rises, so too does the music, until all comes crashing together in a cacophony of light and sound.
“The Runner” will push and pull your sympathies and leave you breathless in its wake. The play culminates in a beautiful contrast: Jacob’s feet and voice run on, but you are arrested where you sit.
The Grand Theatre
November 5 – 16
Purchase tickets online
Courtney Church is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English and Writing Studies at Western University, where she researches modern and contemporary British theatre. Most of her time in the theatre is spent behind the scenes, tinkering with set design and thinking about props.