BWW Review: QUEENS OF SYRIA, Young Vic, 7 July 2016
Last night's Stuff Happens revival was concerned with warmongering men chasing glory from afar. Now we meet the women who suffer most from such conflict: 13 Syrian refugees, driven from their homeland. Their voices are seldom heard amidst the din, but thanks to Georgina Paget, Charlotte Eagar and William Stirling's drama therapy workshop, which grew into a fully-fledged performance and will tour nationally following its London run, those voices now ring out across the UK.
The women's testimonies are refracted through Euripides's ferocious Trojan Women, damningly close to their own experience - how little has changed since 415 BC. The Euripides extracts are spoken in chorus, the stories told individually. Zoe Lafferty's staging is stark and effective: the women appear on a screen or step up to microphones to speak, otherwise sit on benches and listen to one another. That's what we're asked to do as well - listen and bear witness.
The power of the production lies in revealing the specific individual lives within the numbing stats - millions displaced and dehumanised in terms like "swarm of migrants". The women read out letters to parents, siblings and children, recalling the mundane - squabbling with a sister over an umbrella, breathing in the heady scent of jasmine - alongside the unthinkable. One recounts a perilous journey to give birth in an empty hospital during a bombing raid; another fled the house with her children in pyjamas and looked back to see her city on fire. "It was stay and die, or leave."
Euripidean echoes seem to build confidence in their own voices. They see themselves in Hecuba the refugee, Cassandra hoping for death rather than slavery and humiliation, and Andromache, suffering the unnatural mourning of burying her son. The latter is a counterpoint to Reham Alhakim's desolate tale: her kidnapped aunt, ransomed, released and met with the sight of a son's mutilated body. Reham, and others, occasionally pause to gather strength to continue.
But they would not, for a moment, want our pity. There is an elegiac, poetic quality to some of the text - isolation and exile is like a soul drifting, the crowded dinghies are the boats of death, and "only the sea opens his arms to us" - as well as confrontational fury, but for the most part these are strong, courageous survivors, not victims. They briskly challenge stereotypes and misconceptions: they're not uneducated or work-shy, but have seen businesses destroyed and studies interrupted; they weren't longing to come to the West, rather they long to return to and rebuild Syria. Separation from their country is an open wound.
The piece is also smartly knowing, with a parodic section of well-meaning but tone-deaf questions asked of them - from "How come you have a smartphone?" to the brutal "Do you have a sadder story?" They remind us that they haven't come to entertain, but they do understand theatre is a potent language here - influential and enduring. This is a paean to communal experience, in society and in venues that house our stories. "Some agonies are beyond telling," wrote Euripides, "and some must be told."
Howard Hudson's atmospheric low lighting makes faces too indistinct on occasion, and the subtitles sometimes go out of sync with the Arabic speech. The clarity of individual deliveries also varies, inconsequential though that may seem. But the choric sections are powerful, bristling with anger and scorn, and the songs evocative: of joy and solidarity as well as grief. Perhaps the most astonishing survival is their faith in others, with one mother explaining she teaches her children mercy and tolerance, no matter how they're treated.
What does it mean to be human? That's the question they ask of themselves and of us. Empathy, surely, and drama is its greatest facilitator. As the women named the few precious things they managed to bring with them - a picture, children's award certificates, a key to a lost house - I wondered what I might take. They never imagined this would happen to them, they explained, and of course we all feel the same way. How would we act if our lives were plunged into shadow? We can only hope to have the resolve to declare: "To light a candle is better than damning the darkness."
Queens of Syria is at the Young Vic until 9 July. It then tours to Oxford's North Wall Arts Centre (11-12), Brighton's Attenborough Centre (13-24), Liverpool Everyman (15-16), West Yorkshire Playhouse (18), Edinburgh's Assembly Roxy (19-20) and Durham's Assembly Rooms (21), before returning for a West End Gala at the New London on 24 July
Photo credit: Vanja Karas