Edinburgh Fringe 2017
Borders is the fourth play in Henry Naylor’s Arabian Nightmares series and draws on a collage of stories he discovered through meeting displaced people as he toured with his last play, Angels.
It is a beautifully articulated piece of theatre that moves heart and mind as it tells the story of a Syrian refugee from converging perspectives
The play tells us two linked stories that culminate in a single moment that is emblematic of all too many individual tragedies in the Syrian refugee crisis. It is a powerful narrative that is all the stronger for avoiding sentimentalism.
We meet Nameless (Avital Lvova), a young Syrian woman who becomes an activist through graffiti art, and Sebastian (Graham O’Mara), a somewhat cynical photo-journalist, who once took a now famous photo of Osama Bin Laden but is now mostly known for celebrity portraits. Each tells their separate story, seamlessly passing the narrative ball between them as their lives – at first seeming worlds apart – move inexorably closer.
Unlike some work based on collective experience, the Nameless’ tale has a clear narrative thread, ringing true and yet carrying a sense of multiple stories.
Naylor’s language is elegant, spare, almost poetic – “his teeth cadaverous from red wine”, “boots and hooves on the track” and the art shop owner and his son compared to “tubes of burnt umber”. There are pleasing echoes of simple images – such as an apple dropping from a pocket. The clipped, conversational grammar adds to a sense of urgency in the telling.
The two characters are clearly drawn without falling into caricatures. We inevitably empathise with Nameless, but also see her stubbornness and indecision. There seems little to redeem the self-interested, BMW-owning Sebastian, who knocks “cubes of ice against the glass like conscience”, and we are offered a clear perspective on photo-journalists and their “camera-created hysteria”, but these feel like conscious choices in the writing.
The bringing together of the two characters’ stories, like images becoming superimposed, seems natural, even inevitable, but is subtly done.
Not many writers could get away with the catalogue of celebrities’ names that Sebastian gives us without it feeling like spurious name dropping (on the writer’s part). Naylor does, not least because these scenes are peppered with a satirist’s irony and humour, with lines such as “hemmed in by the Cheeky Girls…” and the irresistible Daniel Bedingfield joke (which I won’t spoil).
Director Michael Cabot’s minimalist design serves the play’s tone and story well. The staging is a simple black box with two leather-topped bar stools that change role, becoming helicopter, lifeboat, jeep and ruined building as well as serving as narrators’ chairs. There are minimal changes in lighting and, in the main, shifts in setting are told by the actors’ postures. There is creative use of the space as the actors change level and position; run on the spot; crouch in a ruined building, ride in a car down a bumpy road.
Lvova and O’Mara’s are both beautiful performances.
Lvova brings to Nameless a naive energy (including in a lovely flashback to her younger self) and a matter-of-fact-ness that adds to the poignancy. She flares with indignation and pride yet also shows her vulnerability and ambivalence. Lvova has a fluidity of physical expression that serves this piece extremely well.
In Sebastian, O’Mara has less emotional range to work with, yet he infuses the self-interest with a hint of fragility. Often conflicted, he seems to shift emotional gear instantly – sometimes bothered, mostly not. In one scene Sebastian makes a momentary reference to his “second wife” and she seems as unimportant to us as she is to him; in another he plays so drunk that he graces the front row with his inebriant’s spittle.
Both actors skillfully navigate the many transitions in this play – switching from narrator to voicing and embodying the various characters they encounter; fading into the background as a scene ends and moving their attention (and so ours) to their colleague. These moments are elegantly choreographed.
Above all it is the piece’s pace and lightness of touch that keeps us engaged. There are several metaphors of painting in this text. Nameless’ city is her canvass; a city in which she feels she is “glowing in the dark”. On the black canvass of a theatre, Naylor and his well matched team have created a work with the simplicity and boldness of street art; and it speaks to us.