Liwaa Yazji’s thought-provoking play examines the effect of propaganda and fake news on a small community in Syria. It’s set in an unnamed village (by inference one that is loyal to the Assad regime) and it opens in the throes of a mass funeral for the latest young men to have been “martyred” by the “terrorists” (men who could well be their peers in the next village along). The eulogies are conducted by the piously controlling Abu al-Tayyib (Amer Hlehel), the chair of the local branch of the Party, in a determinedly media-managed event. But live TV coverage, on script, has go to default footage of blooming flowers and the absurd on-screen assurance that “Everything Is Fine” when the grieving Abu Firas, the local schoolteacher (Carlos Chahine), begins to question the official version of what happened to his son. The rituals of mourning are thrown into disarray by his demand that the suspiciously sealed coffins be opened so that he can determine who is inside.
The goats are a calculated distraction. As the bodies pile up, al-Tayyib hits on a radical scheme of “compensation”. The regime will give out a goat to every bereaved family. Does this “gift” insult the memory of the fallen or does it benefit the well-being of the survivors? In Hamish Pirie’s production, the stage is filled with six real goats – cute creatures who steal the scenes as they clop blithely round the proceedings, occasionally trying to munch the props and spreading an air of genial unconcern. Their docilely disruptive presence is a commentary on the regime’s deliberately ambiguous policy.
The ideological conflict between the school teacher (who refuses to allow his son to be buried before the facts are established) and the party chief is powerfully performed by Chahine and Hlehel. “Has anyone ever told the truth?” asks the latter. Has anyone ever demanded it. Does anyone want it? Does anyone even need it?” His approach to the “truth” is riddled with the fake-news philosophy that it’s whatever a regime needs to believe in order to bring about what it wants. The man is a master of double-speak and his outrageous reinterpretations of the final tragedy have a horrible dramatic heft.
But like much else in this piece, it is long-winded. There is an element of black absurdism in the piece (translated by Katharine Halls) and I was reminded how often, watching that dramatic mode, you can find yourself having got the point of the warped logic and then forced to wait for the play doggedly to spell out the implications. The writing is shrewd and impassioned but it lacks bite. Yazji can’t be accused of short-changing us. There are scenes involving teenage boys who smoke joints, play video games and envisage a future as the bodies in the boxes, fate that may come all the sooner after the public announcement that the age of conscription has has been lowered from 18 to 16. Amir El-Masry (of Night Manager fame) makes an impressive stage debut as a reluctant soldier who has avenged his “martyr” brother and then heads home to his mother and pregnant wife. His experiences on the frontline have left him left him seriously confused and abusively impatient at his his wife for her unquestioned acceptance of party orthodoxy about heroism and sacrifice.
A terrible adrenalin courses through this sequence. Elsewhere, Pirie has his work cut out sustaining the energy levels, despite the urgency of the subject matter. His uneven production may reinforce the impression that inside this talented but flabby and over-deliberate play, there’s a leaner and more deadly piece waiting to get out.
Until 30 December (royalcourttheatre.com)
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