Oxford's oldest student newspaper

Independent since 1920

Review: Mahomet and Zaire

This ambitious production encompasses two Voltaire plays in a new English translation. Mahomet is an invented tale of the prophet Mahomet’s arrival in Mecca in the 7th century, in which a young man is manipulated by a religious leader into carrying out an assassination, while Zaire is set in the 7th century and tells the ill-fated love-story of a Muslim sultan and his Christian slave. The plays are united by themes of religious fanaticism (Muslims in the first play, Christians in the second), but they constantly contrast this with the good teachings of religion, showing both its positive and very damaging effect on human life, posing powerful and unsettling questions.



The setting of these plays in Mansfield Chapel was, according to director Jean-Patrick Vieu, an accident, but an inspired one, for it is its juxtaposition with the surroundings that gives this production much of its power. The horror of the otherwise slightly melodramatic murder scene is infinitely enhanced by the fact that it takes place at an actual altar, yet the chapel’s simple decoration means that its overtly religious nature does not intrude too much on the action. But the chapel is also a hindrance to the production in that its echoey acoustic

s made it difficult to hear the actors, especially when they inevitably had their backs to me or were at the other end of the aisle in which the play is being performed in traverse. Straining to make out every word of the rhyming couplets meant that it was sometimes hard to follow the plot, especially in the first play, where characters came, quarrelled and left with high speed.



The lack of set means that all attention is focused on the actors, which sometimes worked well, particularly in the emotional dialogue between Zaire (Franki Hackett) and her father during the second play, but sometimes during speeches the other actors looked rather static and awkward, and occasionally the acting buckled under the scrutiny. However, perhaps due to the more personal nature of the story, the characters in this second play proved easier to relate and warm to, and Zaire’s dilemma when faced with a choice between her dying father’s Christianity and her lover’s Islam is executed powerfully through the use of the necklace she and her father pass between them.


These plays present issues very relevant to our times, and do so in a refreshing and unselfconscious manner. It will be a shame if the glitches and logistical issues detract from what should be a raw and moving experience in a beautiful venue.

Check out our other content

Most Popular Articles