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FringeReview UK 2017

Low Down

Hamish Pirie directs a lengthy text. Rosie Elnile’s set is flexible and versatile. Muaz Aljubeh’s lighting is telling in the glare and tenebrous scenes. Ian William Galloway’s lowering screens and videos of local news (in English) boom with Tom Gibbons’ TV drown-out sound too, through Mark Gergis’ and Rizan Said’s selection of music and bomb crumps.



We’ve had rabbits twice, babies twice, and now six pigmy goats on the Royal Court’s Theatre Downstairs in Liwaa Yazji’s Goats, bleating metaphors for the true tale in Syria of a local party official who hits on gifting a goat for each son martyred fighting the opposition.


In Katharine Halls’ lucid, clean translation, Yazji’s metaphors hold, and enrich the stage – not in the way you might fear – but in a satirically bitter denouement the goats participate in. It’s that mix of verisimilitude and metaphor though, fable and fake news, that lurches the play from factoids to family disputes every ounce as bitter as the work’s overarching meat-for-meat substitution. The rationale’s superb, it’s the other kind of mess obscuring it that might be cleared a little. Yazji’s determined to portray a community, not an individual tragedy, though she ends up with effectively just three families. There is sag though, and a way through it.


Hamish Pirie picks much of that way through and proves there’s an often powerful if lengthy text. Rosie Elnile’s set is both flexible and versatile, actors sitting in corners half-obscured till they’re needed, a strew of kitchen ware and fridge with dishes of food brought out mainly for insult, and a recess downstage where people and goats disappear down at crucial moments including one highly disturbing moment involving the latter. Muaz Aljubeh’s lighting is particularly telling in the glare and above all tenebrous scenes.


Ian William Galloway’s lowering screens and videos of local news (in English) add to the glare of public versus blackout private when they’re off. They boom with Tom Gibbons’ TV drown-out sound too, through Mark Gergis’ and Rizan Said’s selection of music and bomb crumps: we’re in a noisy war you can smell.


We start with a blaze of TV screens and lights, with a Presenter too, and a high-energy melée including four local boys town conference and party leader Abu al-Tayyib (smooth yet troubled Amer Hiehel). With a long preamble on martyrs he makes his great gesture, somehow accepted by all but cussed Abu Firas, local esteemed teacher who’s just lost his sixteen-year-old son, something underlined when the minimum draft age has been brought down from eighteen to sixteen. Carlos Chahine’s dignity flecks then flares with anger demanding to see his son in the coffin, declaring these are empty. It’s a strong central performance, as Abu Firas’ eloquent but partially-protected position allows him to call out on the skein of lies from all sides. This scene’s richly cross-patterned with voices for and against.


A-Tayyib, initially indulgent does state the case for his implausible gambit. ‘Has anyone ever told the truth? Has anyone ever demanded it? Does anyone want it? Does anyone even need it?’ Pithy casuistry it takes Abu Firas a far less glib journey to answer, and to an extent with silence.


As positions for and against pile up, the fabrics riven by the appearance of Amir el-Masry’s Adnan returning to mother and wife to abuse one for her silence and the other for her apparent complicity. He’s done a runner and reveals the devastating truth behind those young men who phone up saying they have a group of hostages and asking their families what to do with them? Far more rides on that than any family imagines, and what Adnan suggests as he reveals this, is that people in power know this, condone it. The initially silent Souad Faress (still in mourning for another son) and Isabellla Nefar’s abused wife Zahra give strong performances as they attempt to reconcile, stand up to and comes to terms with Adnan’s traumatised, mocking challenges. He’s back because he’d phoned his mother, and her answer was ‘run’. There’s a devastating analogue and Faress catches its full measure, just as Nefar shudders with abuse.


It’s a powerful tableau, the eloquent counterpart to Abu Firas’ dignity. It’s necessary. It’s also troubling. Like the different Bad Roads by Natal’ya Vorozhbit currently playing Upstairs it begs questions of treatment of women – there in Ukraine – not answered by the compass of war. Conflict amplifies abuse and misogyny. It doesn’t condone it but speaks its abuses out loud. But here its precise outfall is initially baffling. Adnan’s testimony though, his reveals are shocking, necessary and have to be seen and heard on stage to impact as they should.


The concatenation of narratives, three families turned in on themselves with no simple targets, are in themselves compelling, if fragmented. The four schoolboys playing at soldiers and other splinter scenes work hauntingly well. The goats though for once are having a good year, pace Tonto. It’s when the Monty Python sketch ripples to the surface with laughter as goats stray off you wonder at the wisdom of it. There is though a justified theatrical coup through the welter of involvements elsewhere.


There are analogues. I’m reminded curiously of Alfred Schnittke’s opera Life With an Idiot where the authorities (this is Soviet Russia) wish a violently assertive ‘idiot’ on an insufficiently joyous family, with devastating consequences. Yazji’s grasped the full weight of a real incident. It’s simply the density and cross-clutter obscuring the essential brilliance of this, that might put some off. It shouldn’t. It’s an essential drama, and an even more essential document for navigating the Syria we don’t know, that of ordinary non-opposition Syrians making the best of it and thus the worst. Perhaps a pared-down version might one day follow. It’s too good to miss for the sake of a few shaggy scenes.