"Fortunate is the man who has never tasted God's vengeance." In unison the women recite lines from Antigone in a yoga studio in Beirut.
But this is no regular production. The star of Antigone of Syria is not Sophocles’ heroine but the cast, whose personal stories of love, loss and tragedy have been integrated into the 2,500-year-old text.
The 22 women have never seen a play, let along acted in one. They have come a long way from their homes in the refugee camps on the edges of Beirut to the stage of the small Metro Madina theatre, where the show premiered last night.
Initially afraid of their own voices, they have learnt how to be comfortable in their own bodies. During rehearsals a month ago, the group was rowdy during breaks, and had slowly started to share stories. The play has been a therapeutic experience for many.
Just a week before they were set to go on stage, women still wiped away tears during rehearsals, while hearing stories they have heard many times before. “Even if these are individual stories, they speak on our behalf,” explained Rim, a 35-year-old primary school teacher who fled Damascus with her three children to “escape the sounds of bullets”.
The women’s stories form the bulk of the text, woven into the narrative of Antigone’s burial of her brother Polynices, in defiance of her uncle King Creon, the ruler of Thebes. He condemns Antigone to be buried alive. Hiba, one of the women, is a modern version of the woman she will portray on stage. Her voice quivers as she recites her lines, addressing the injustice of her fate. The 23-year-old has lost two brothers. One died while she was in Lebanon, leaving her unable to bury him. She still doesn’t know here his tomb is.
The Syrian/British production company’s choice to perform Antigone wasn’t just the female perspective on civil war, says Mohamed al-Attar, who wrote the text. “It’s also a story of the individual versus the stage, and the individual versus authority.”
Political overtones are never far away, despite the women, who hold differing political views, trying to shy away from politics in the text. Creon is the most polarising figure in the play. “All sympathise with Antigone, but they don’t all identify Creon as a classical tyrant,” says Mr al-Attar. Fadwa, the oldest in the group, was drawn to the role. “Creon was trying to keep the state standing. He had to sacrifice just to make the country stronger. Because he was the captain of the ship, he needs to make strong, harsh decisions for the bigger picture,” she explains of her motivation to embody the character. “I was in a similar position,” she says, referring to when she decided to take her grandchildren to Lebanon, against their mother’s will, after two of her sons died within a year.
For many, conflict with authority can also be found in the family sphere. “Creon can also be a dominant male figure, someone in the family,” explains Mr al-Attar.
Most of the women’s families are supportive of them going on stage, but one has a spouse who is still convinced she is attending a sewing workshop. The group started eight weeks ago with 41 women. Only 22 will appear on stage.
In addition to family adversity, a handful have had to overcome the fact that they cannot read, recording the text on mobile phones and playing it back to learn their lines.
The play offers them a chance to escape traditional female role patterns. Fadwa says she hasn’t felt this young in years. “The past 40 years I have dedicated to my kids, to the life of others, not my own. In this project I have found the space to come back to who I used to be, somebody who loves to speak, to write,” she beams. It’s also an escape from a harsh daily reality. Chatter at rehearsals focuses on the food aid that was cut by the World Food Programme last week due to a lack of funding.
In pictures: Syria conflict
In pictures: Syria conflict
1/32 Syria crisis
Syrians carry children amid debris following a air strike by government forces in the northern city of Aleppo
2/32 Syria crisis
A Syrian man carries a girl on a street covered with dust following a air strike by government forces in the northern city of Aleppo
3/32 Syria crisis
Syrians react as they stand amid debris following a air strike by government forces in the northern city of Aleppo
4/32 Syria crisis
A Syrian man carries a girl amid debris following a air strike by government forces in the northern city of Aleppo
5/32 Syria crisis
An injured Syrian man walks out from the rubble of a destroyed building following a air strike by government forces in the northern city of Aleppo
6/32 Syria crisis
A Syrian woman makes her way through debris following a air strike by government forces in the northern city of Aleppo
7/32 Syria crisis
People stand on the rubble of collapsed buildings at a site hit by what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in the Al-Fardous neighbourhood of Aleppo
8/32 Syria crisis
Syrian residents stand amid the rubble of destroyed buildings
9/32 Syria crisis
A Syrian resident grasps a mattress amid rubble in the al-Firdous neighborhood of the northern city of Aleppo
10/32 Syria crisis
A bullet-riddled parking sign stands amid debris in a deserted street leading into the old city of Homs
11/32 Syria crisis
A general view shows abandoned buildings on a deserted square in the old city of Homs after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas
12/32 Syria crisis
A mosque is pictured through shattered glass in the old city of Homs, as rebel fighters withdrew from the city centre in line with a negotiated withdrawal deal with the government after having held out under tight siege for nearly two years
13/32 Syria crisis
Buses carrying Free Syrian Army fighters leaving Homs. Exhausted and worn out from a year-long siege, hundreds of Syrian rebels left their last remaining bastions in the heart of the central city of Homs under a cease-fire deal with government forces. The exit of some 1,200 fighters and civilians will mark a de facto end of the rebellion in the battered city, which was one of the first places to rise up against President Bashar Assad's rule, earning it the nickname of "capital of the revolution"
14/32 Syria crisis
Syrian government forces hold up a portrait of President Bashar al-Assad (L) while others raise the national flag on top of a pole in the old city of Homs
15/32 Syria crisis
Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad run through Aleppo's Bustan al-Qasr crossing after their release by rebels. They were freed as part of a larger deal which saw the last remaining Syrian rebels in central Homs city evacuate their positions and free captives in several locations in northern Syria
16/32 Syria crisis
A Syrian woman and two children walk past heavily damaged buildings in the northern city of Aleppo
17/32 Syria crisis
A man carries a wounded girl following a reported bombardment with explosive-packed "barrel bombs" by Syrian government forces in the al-Mowasalat neighborhood of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo
18/32 Syria crisis
A wounded man sits as he is treated at a makeshift hospital following a reported bombardment with explosive-packed "barrel bombs" by Syrian government forces in the al-Sakhour district of the northern city of Aleppo
19/32 Syria crisis
Debris rises in what Free Syrian Army fighters and Islamic rebels said was an operation to strike Al-Sahaba checkpoint, which is considered a gateway to Al-Dayf valley, and remove forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad in Maarat Al-Nouman, Idlib province
20/32 Syria crisis
Men try to put out fire at a site hit by what activists said was an air strike by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the town of Azaz, north of Aleppo, near the border with Turkey
21/32 Syria crisis
Civil Defence members try to put out fire
22/32 Syria crisis
Survivors react at a site hit by what activists said was an air strike by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the town of Azaz, north of Aleppo, near the border with Turkey
23/32 Syria crisis
Residents queue as they wait to receive food aid distributed by the UNRWA at the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, south of Damascus
24/32 Syria crisis
Belongings of Syrian rebels inside a chapel at Crac des Chevaliers, the world's best preserved medieval Crusader castle in Syria. The village was destroyed in fighting between the government and rebel forces while the castle, listed as a UNESCO world heritage site, also has been damaged over the past two years
25/32 Syria crisis
Hosen Sabah, a 16-year-old student is comforted by his mother at a hospital in Damascus. Nosen was wounded by a mortar outside his school, while 14 other students were killed and over 80 wounded
26/32 Syria crisis
A Free Syrian Army fighter works on a locally made launcher before firing it towards forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad in Mork town
27/32 Syria crisis
Syrian policemen and citizens inspecting the site of a car bomb at the entrance of Moadhamiyet al-Sham neighborhood in rural Damascus. According to Syria's Arab News Agency (SANA), a car bomb explosion has gone off in the countryside of Damascus and initial information say there are casualties, where a car rigged with explosions was remotely detonated at the entrance of Moadhamiyet al-Sham neighborhood in rural Damascus during engineering units it was trying to dismantled it
28/32 Syria crisis
Opposition fighters carrying a rocket launcher during clashes against government forces in the Sheikh Lutfi area, west of the airport in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo
29/32 Syria crisis
A Syrian man helps a woman to make her way through debris following reported air strikes by government forces in the Halak neighbourhood in northeastern Aleppo
30/32 Syria crisis
A Syrian man reacts as he carries the body of injured boy following reported air strikes by government forces in the Halak neighbourhood in northeastern Aleppo. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 33 civilians were killed in the attack
31/32 Syria crisis
Syrian rescue workers carry the body of a woman following reported air strikes by government forces in the Halak neighbourhood in northeastern Aleppo
32/32 Syria crisis
Syrians gather at the site of reported air strikes by government forces in the Halak neighbourhood in northeastern Aleppo
But that makes cultural projects even more important, says Rim. “Because there is lack of basic needs and because that is a huge burden, the time we spend here is the time we can escape and we can share this burden and express some of our pain.”
Like many, she fears the time when the production is over. Organisers hope that the women will be able to keep the project going on their own, and maybe even become trainers for other women. “Most of all, it’s the chance to spend a few hours every day outside of a tough situation,” says Soundous, another cast member.Reuse content