Set in a village in Syria, Liwaa Yazji’s
A story that deserves to be told, but is let down by lifeless performances
The Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs stage is fitted with flat screen televisions scattered around six coffins with flower wreaths and portraits of war heroes presented to the audience. A live-feed displayed across the screens is established by a camera-woman – used effectively throughout the play to highlight intimate moments between the actors, led by the morally questionable and patronising presenter (Sirine Saba). Abu Firas (Carlos Chahine) desperately heckles local politician Abu Al-Tayyib (Amer Hlehel) as he honours their fallen sons in a speech hailing them martyrs. Both Hlehel and Chahine continue to to threaten, intimidate and tiptoe around one another as the action unfolds, bringing the slogan questions of the play to a peak: “Has anyone ever told the truth? Has anyone ever demanded it? Does anyone want it? Does anyone even need it?”
Al-Tayyib rewards and honour the loss of each fallen soldier sacrificed to fight the “terrorists” by presenting their families with a goat in compensation. He ain’t kiddin’, six goats trot about the stage, butting in on the drama unfolding around them. Their playful innocence and sweet-natured cheekiness adding dynamics, rich symbolism and softness in the harshest of moments. A little distracting too!
It’s disheartening to admit that these frolicking goats are the true stars of the show. A 12-strong diverse cast is such a delight to see on stage, but overall the audience were subjected to lacklustre acting, obviously feigned passion, and empty, repetitive intonation. However, Souad Faress, Isabella Nefar, and Sirine Saba delivered three outstanding and sincerely powerful performances. Faress’ silent fury speaks louder than the words of others; as Imm Ghassan, a grieving mother who has sworn to never speak again until her son’s death has been avenged. Whenever she returns to the stage, she creates and bolsters a potent thickness in the air, a tension the play was miserably failing to sustain. Even the humming drone of the televisions or the occasional eerie bleat from a goat struggled to create a sense of atmosphere when so many actors were void of feeling and energy. Nefar played Zahra showing gentle determination as the pregnant wife of soldier Adnan. In the scene where Adnan returns to his mother Imm Ghassan and wife Zahra, we have what could have been the most effective scene of the play. Amir El-Masry endeavoured to be intimidating and desperate as the text suggested this soldier’s return should, but instead came across as insincere in his delivery, which shattered the audience investment.
Ultimately, Liwaa Yazji’s brings us a story that deserves to be told, but is let down by lifeless performances and a text translation by Katherine Halls moves between riveting and clunky throughout. See it for the story, it’s imagery, it’s insight into how a nation can be propagandised, and the goats.