Edinburgh Fringe 2019
A brand-new haunting and uplifting adaptation of Euripides’ great anti-war tragedy The Trojans, written and acted by a cast of Syrian refugees living in Glasgow. With original writing by the cast.
In the large Pentland Theatre at the EICC, the show starts as the audience walks in. There are two large sets of white steps and raised seating areas on stage. Groups of women and men arrive and mingle. We seem to be in a market, and as the actors group and re-group, they meet and greet each other and eventually settle into sitting positions at different levels around the stage. We realise later that we are watching every-day life, soon to be horribly disrupted and destroyed.
With the stage in stark white, the actors are dressed in muted colours: various shades of blue, brown and grey. The simplicity of the set and the lighting contrasts with the complexity – and enormity – of the subject matter.
The chorus speaks in Arabic throughout and the translations are projected in large sur-titles onto a big screen above the stage. There is enormous power in the rhythmic Arabic spoken in perfect unison. The chorus both comments on the wider issues as well as supporting the individuals whose stories we hear. The language is heightened, concentrated and poetic, with Biblical qualities.
True-life testimony and stories chart the way civil society unravels and breaks down, descending into random killings, rape, torture and imprisonment. Perhaps the parallel link with the Greek tragedy gives the actors a certain distancing to allow them – and us – to cope with the shocking reality of the events they describe. The structure and format of personal accounts alternating with the chorus allow this hugely difficult story to be told. The actors very successfully hold the space, while the theatrical structure holds their material. As the programme states in relation to the Greek original: ‘Though not strictly refugees as they are shortly to be enslaved by the Greeks, the themes the women explore – loss of home, relatives and loved ones, community and status – are the same as suffered by refugees down the ages.’
The bulk of the individual stories are told in Arabic, with some delivered in English. This is an effective decision. When the actors tell their stories in Arabic, there is an additional power and authenticity to the feelings and emotions attached to their words.
Throughout the play, Syria is personified and the feelings of love for the home country and the times of peace spent there are visceral and real. It is therefore especially affecting for the audience here to see the presentation of love for the adopted country – Scotland – while always retaining the hope of return.
In addition to the stories of Syria before and during the war, there are other important sections in the play. These include a lively debate about censorship and how far one should be politically active and vocal in the new country, a set of questions expressing queries and concerns about coming to live in Scotland, and testimony to the generosity of the reception received in Glasgow. There is engaged oratory and debate between characters as well as between the chorus and individuals. In contrast to the subject matter, the actors’ movements are deliberate, spare, and calm.
Towards the end of the play the actors fill the stage with plants and flowers as a metaphorical representation of their hope for a new life in the host country. This provides an overwhelming sense of relief and some optimism for the future. This scene is somewhat disrupted by the arrival of children on stage who run to their parents. Up till this moment the production has been held by a stillness and careful choreography of movement- but after the arrival of the children this hold is loosened for the audience. The show then ends as it began – with a scene of normal life resuming.
This is a remarkable piece of ensemble theatre by and on behalf of the Syrian Scots community: arresting, absorbing and moving. There was a well-deserved standing ovation for this extraordinary production – for just one performance here at the Edinburgh Fringe. It is brave and ambitious in its conception and content and is a profound experience for the audience.