New Diorama Theatre, London
23rd June 2014
A man stands beaten, bloody, bare. In the heart of new London we watch.
Waalaa, the man, wakes in Zaatari Syrian Refugee Camp in Jordan. To attempt any return to his life, he must tell his story to the British Embassy official who questions him. This invitation stands as a door.
“Tell me your story?”
Is it the role of theatre to take your heart from your chest and place it in your hands?
Because this does; it makes you weigh your humanity. If what we give our time to shapes us then, for me, this is the purpose of art, in any theatre or setting. Walaa reaches into us, pulls holes in the fabric of our judgement, faith and history, to explore the idea of loyalty.
The stage is the refugee camp of the present, Syria and London from the past. A monochrome set stands in contrast to the complexity of these colliding worlds, allows each dilemma to stand alone. Confined by both the lighting and white taped lines drawn on the floor there are three spaces, and a space towards the front of the stage, that crosses the restrictions behind. As the play opens you are dropped into the characters’ time and space with an audio-visual sequence projected above the set. It covers old news and demonstrations; as unexplainable as the news slot on 24 hour television to an outsider. We are immersed in a past that isn’t ours; soldiers, officers, crowds.
This is theatre as a living story, it’s not a documentary format. It has all the immersive qualities of strong fiction writing. There’s a gently chastising and dark humour too. The embassy official is named Dave, in an echo of our PM, and Waalaa thanks him for the government’s generosity in considering admitting five hundred of the “neediest refugees.” Waalaa reminds Dave too that there are no postal addresses in the camp.
Each section of dialogue carries you into Waalaa’s life. Every gesture in each scene wraps you in his family and his loyalties. As in life itself there is no down time from the crisis. Government soldiers knock at the door; he is in prison. Rebels destroy the prison; he is on the run. Escape fails; he ends up in the refugee camp. Each crisis turns the story over in your hands. Behind this stands the security of the life he had before. Bereaved child, sad student, successful expat. Husband, lover, father.
The two actors cover many roles. George Savvides is Waalaa through all the times of his life and James El-Sharawy becomes embassy official and patriotic soldier, beloved son and rescuing hero. Each identity stands clear from the next with precise embodiment, a story that unfolds around their wants, needs and loyalties. They repeatedly remind you that security and safety in the present, any present, comes at a price. As an audience we were bound in that thought and in the idea of measuring ourselves by our loyalties.
Waalaa, with its story of Syria and its test of any complacency in life, deserves a wide audience and the creative team behind it have ambitions to take it out into the wider world. Keep on the look-out for it if for you theatre needs to be self-aware, political and compelling.
All words by Rebecca Sowray. More writing by Rebecca can be found at her author’s archive.