In an age where dead children are washed up on beaches, and what seems like an endless stream of refugees risking everything on a dinghy to escape tyranny, it is all too easy to forget all those people are human beings with stories to tell. Louder Than War’s Paul Clark reviews Queens of Syria.
It is that making the political personal which makes Queens of Syria such a powerful piece of theatre as it melds the words of 13 female Syrian refugees with Euripides’ classic text The Trojan Women that also has a female chorus.
At times it is difficult to see which are words written more than 2000 years ago about women awaiting their fate in a sacked Troy, and which are the harrowing testimonies of these displaced women living in a three mile square refugee city in the Jordanian desert.
In truth, it doesn’t really matter as it shows that we seem to have learnt nothing as humanity continues to debase itself with mindless violence with women and their children yet again bearing the brunt of this insanity.
The women stand together on the sparse set to form the chorus for The Trojan Women which they studied and workshopped in their exile, but use those prophetic words to weave in their own stories of what it is like to be forced out of their country by barrel bombs. They slowly reveal the trauma of being separated from their strong family units who are dead, displaced, living in Europe or still in Syria living in fear of whichever lunatic fraction is next on the production line of misery.
Hannah Arendt argued that it is the banality of evil that is the most dangerous. That thought born out of the Holocaust echoes here as the simple aspiration of these women is just to return to their homeland.
Back to a peaceful Syria where one once bought an umbrella with their cousin, another created a now destroyed pharmacy business, others attended joyous family weddings or for one woman just to sit on her favourite balcony with the familiar aroma of jasmine in her nostrils.
Director Zoe Lafferty subtly guides this cast of traumatised non-professional actors infusing The Trojan Women with new life as they slowly reveal the true cost of living away from their beloved home country with members of their families dead or missing.
It is disconcerting sitting in an theatre dedicated to make believe to hear Reem stand up and say with unconcealed fury: ‘I am not here to entertain you or sing a song. I have a rage and a message.’ As she says, shame on us for looking away.
This production is part of the Playhouse’s genuine commitment to give refugees a voice, which started two years ago when they became the country’s first Theatre of Sanctuary, and you won’t see more a greater indictment of our post-Brexit world all year.
But if there is problem with this unsettling work is how much difference does it actually make when it plays to an audience who are pretty much on message already? Queens of Syria needs to be heard in communities where there are real tensions because that is where it will have the greatest power.
That is not the Queens’ problem as Anwar, Duana, Fatem, Fatin, Kaoula, Maha, Mais, Rahme, Rash, Reem, Reham, Sham and Waed give voice to all of our fellow human beings who to our national shame have somehow become faceless. Every one of them has a right to enjoy the right to live free and safe that we take for granted, and which they enjoyed until it disappeared overnight.
A hard won lesson for us all delivered with an righteous anger that challenges us to do something so they can just go home .
All words by Paul Clarke. You can find more of Paul’s writing on Louder Than War at his author’s archive.