6 June 2011, 6pm: activist blogger Amina Arraf (aka A Gay Girl in Damascus) is kidnapped from the streets of the Syrian capital. So begins Omar El-Khairy’s Sour Lips, a dense and disorientating piece keen to designate itself as a fictional account of recent events which already hover uncertainly between the realms of fact and fantasy. Yet, whilst the play potentially has a timely and incisive story to tell, Sour Lips struggles to fill the Ovalhouse’s larger downstairs space, let down by unimaginative staging that subdues its complex and wide-ranging concerns.
Whilst the action oscillates between Damascus, Virginia and Edinburgh, it makes its home in the strange, liminal and limitless landscape of the Internet where Amina (Lara Sawalha) uses her blog to champion civic freedom, LGBT rights and political change. Hunted by government security forces, events culminate in her kidnap, sparking a media uproar off and online. It is here that the production reaches its first hurdle, as the intangible clamour of cyberspace is notoriously difficult to represent onstage and the minimal set offers little in the way of guiding visuals. Consequently, audience understanding of the goings-on rests too precariously on careful attention to endless anonymous voices: a raucous rabble of Facebook comments, journalist enquiries and government press releases. The three Chorus members (Celine Rosa Tan, Takunda Kramer, Eden Vik) who voice these faceless masses never quite get the chance to shine. The sense that these are the opinions of real, living people is soon lost amongst an incoherent mass of characters not definitively realised enough to make an impact. Eventually, the part-verbatim texts – with some genuinely insightful and provoking observations that should offer the most useful inroads into the often overwhelming situation – become only so much noise. Perhaps, in cynical reflection of modern life’s constant information overload, this is exactly what director Carissa Hope Lynch is aiming for, but it encourages our detachment rather than our empathy.
Our interest is piqued, however, by the sparky and refreshingly honest Amina who willingly endangers her life with her open sexuality and fierce activism. Yet, she is often undercut and upstaged by the more fascinating figure – inexplicably omnipotent American, Tom McMaster (an absorbing and detailed performance from Simon Darwen), whose purpose in the action only becomes clear in the final moments. As a result, unless armed with prior knowledge, we spend most of the time with very little clue as to what is going on.
It is even more difficult to establish the value of El-Khairy’s text when the execution lacks any real vibrancy and innovation. This is a shame because the writing is often raw and lyrical, and El-Khairy’s fearless engagement with such a contentious topic is commendable. However, this simply does not come across in performance, as the cartoonishly simplified characterisations lampooning political figures, community spokespeople and heated forum debaters distract from the immediate issue. Perhaps such conventions are in the Oh! What a Lovely War tradition, but we mustn’t forget that Joan Littlewood unleashed her satire almost half a century after the First World War – whereas the wounds of Middle Eastern conflict that Sour Lips unabashedly plays with are still fresh and still open.
Still, there are some deeply affecting moments. In an a particularly poignant scene, the beautiful and melodic Arabic language takes centre stage as Amina’s father defends her from imminent arrest, no translation needed as Sawalha delivers the speech with eloquent passion. Yet, when the ugly truth arose, I could not help but feel a little cheated when such intimacies became mere ploys to intensify the shock-value of Sour Lips‘s final twist.
The play does offer itself as a “speculative narrative”, but such speculation eventually feels frustratingly indecisive rather than nuanced. El-Khairy does not attempt to retell the tale, but obediently vanquishes Amina along with all of the concerns ‘she’ raises. Unfortunately, it is in doing so that he sacrifices the opportunity to make us truly think. He might have resolved the problem of Amina’s absence with stories of all the real and brave Syrian female internet activists – Razan Ghazzawi, for example – but chooses instead to remind us of our ignorance, without ever helping us to change.
Sour Lips is playing at Ovalhouse Downstairs until 16 February 16. For more information and tickets, see www.ovalhouse.com