Wael Zuaiter: Unknown

Patricia Tobin

Embedded in the Israel-Palestine rivalry, Jesse Cox gently guides this tale to being something more human than political.
Wael Zuaiter: Unknown

Image by Sarah Walker. 

As part of Next Wave Festival, Wael Zuaiter: Unknown is a gripping theatrical documentary and essential viewing. Under the overarching theme of NWF's 'New Grand Narrative', Wael Zuaiter: Unknown tells the story of Wael Zuaiter, a Palestinian intellectual, who was shot and killed by two Israeli Mossad agents in Rome 1972. Through its creative use of audio and visual mediums, Wael Zuaiter: Unknown successfully captures the essence of a 'live' performance.


Radio producer Jesse Cox makes his debut performance as he recounts Zuaiter's life in Italy, where he met Cox's great-grandaunt, Australian painter Janet venn Brown. It churns from a political thriller to an endearing love story, but it is thoughtfully held together by Cox's profound ability as an enthralling narrator. His calm cadence evokes a quiet presence, and his refreshing Wallacian sincerity is deeply engaging. Additionally, Cox makes the personal touch by including audio recordings of venn Brown recounting her time in Rome with Zuaiter, and also his own journey to the Middle East to meet Zuaiter's living relatives. This entire personal narrative is embedded in the complexities of the Israel-Palestine rivalry, but Cox gently guides the tale to being something more human than political.

Wael Zuaiter: Unknown is perhaps akin to a graphic novel that happens in real-time. Similar to Alison Bechdel's Fun Home and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, Wael Zuaiter: Unknown utilises the intricate blend of image and words to bring a personal story to the forefront. From the poignant illustrations by Aldous Massie to Matt Hunyh's use of muted tones from Japanese calligraphy, the art work is beautifully haunting. Cox also includes photographic images and maps as visual sources, as though re-piecing different elements of Zuaiter's vivid story together. Composer Jeff Bush accompanies Cox's narrative, by playing live music onstage. It is a subtle touch that is exquisitely done, and it all merges to form a coherent piece of theatre. 

With Wael Zuaiter: Unknown, the theme of storytelling is crucial. The account of an assassinated Palestinian intellectual is undoubtedly arresting, but it is interesting to note that Zuaiter's tale is chiefly bookended by the frame-story from the Arabic fables One Thousand and One Nights. From his own larger-than-life personality to the unresolved secrecy behind his death, Zuaiter's own story draws parallels to the grand mythic narratives. By evoking traces of the legendary, Wael Zuaiter: Unknown pays homage to ancient oral and literary traditions that helps elevate Zuaiter's tale to mystical new heights.

Wael Zuaiter: Unknown validates the necessity of a 'live' experience. It informs, intrigues and excites; its raw energy boldly underscored with a human touch. Most strikingly, the production thoroughly demonstrates the sheer power of storytelling. By deliberately interweaving elements of fiction and reality, Wael Zuaiter: Unknown reminds us that we are all stories in the end.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Wael Zuaiter: Unknown

Writer and Co-Director: Jesse Cox
Co-Director and Dramaturg: Mark Pritchard
Script Editor: Que Minh Luu
Illustrators: Matt Huynh & Aldous Massie
Composer: Joff Bush
Sound design: Luke Mynott
Set design: Owen Phillips
Lighting design: Ben Shaw
Animator: Benjamin Zaugg
Stage Manager: Rebekah Gibbs
Associate Producers for Next Wave: Kristy Ayre & Kyle Kremerskothen
Producers for Creative Nonfiction: Que Minh Luu & Jesse Cox

Theatre Works, Acland St, St Kilda
Next Wave Festival
16 April – 11 May

About the author

Patricia Tobin is a Melbourne-based reviewer for ArtsHub. Follow her on Twitter: @havesomepatty