“I have a scream I have to let out. I want the world to hear it.” Thirteen women step onto The Liverpool Everyman’s Thrust stage from out of the shadows, stand before a giant video screen and – mostly in Syrian, with subtitles – tell their audience exactly what it is to leave behind the country they love and leave it to be torn apart by civil war.
Not the most uplifting of evenings as part of the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival, you might think, but then – as with most aspects unearthed in this sometimes harrowing 75 minutes – you would be wrong. After all, what could be more uplifting than listening to the stories of survivors of the greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II.
The basis for the retelling of these true accounts is a re-working of Euripides’ Women of Troy, first written in 415 BC. With its captives waiting to shipped from the sacked city into slavery, the parallels are all too clear and its message stark: Do We Never Learn?
Born within the confines of a drama workshop designed to instil confidence in those who had fled, what Queens of Syria has turned into is nothing short of inspirational, an observational, educational and emotional voice for those who are pigeon-holed as to being parasites and freeloaders, not in fear and mourning for the lives they once had.
“I am not here to entertain,” one of the women says. “I am not here to sing you songs. I am here to tell you the truth,” which is precisely what they do. Steeling themselves, with voices breaking, they tell us their stories of a mother who is herself kidnapped having arranged a meeting with her son’s abductors only, when ransomed, to discover that the son has already been butchered.
Of the vivid descriptions of what it is like to give birth to a sick baby under heavy bombardment, forced to drive through hell to get the child to hospital. Of the ridiculous questions refugees face – “How do you have a smart phone?” – only very often to be told “Sorry, your story isn’t sad enough.”
“Do I have to be ashamed because there’s a civil war now in my country?” the women ask, before adding “What does it mean to be human and why are you not ready to listen? How did killing become normal? Shame on you!”
What really comes across, however – with a truly potent gut punch – is the overwhelming sense of homesickness and yearning for a country and life that will never be returned. Never is this more authoritatively demonstrated than when each refugee comes forward and explains what it is that they miss most.
From the scent of the flowers at dusk, to gently swaying on a garden swing to drinking tea on a balcony overlooking a gently flowing river, the energy and passion with which each is described is heartbreaking.
It isn’t always the big things that makes the sum of the whole – the bombings, the gunfire, the dirt and the grime and the noise – but those simple things in life that are denied to us that bring home the true meaning of loss.
As theatre, despite only a scant nod towards acting, Queens of Syria is as dramatic as anything you are ever like to witness at The Everyman, with the very heart of that which makes great performance possible – storytelling – being stripped back to the quick and given free rein to inspire, inform and invigorate.
Incredibly humbling and unquestionably significant, Queens of Syria should be toured far and wide as not only an educational tool but also as a means of illustrating just how little we know of a subject of which we think we know a great deal.
Queens of Syria
Liverpool Everyman Theatre
June 15 – June 16 2016
Producers: Developing Arts, Refuge Productions, Young Vic
Running Time: 1 hr 15 mins
PR Rating: ***** Vital, Vivid and Visceral
For more information: www.arabartsfestival.com