We live in a society very ignorant of the conflict in Syria and its harrowing reality, which is often paved over by the short and sickly-sweet blanket term: “the crisis in Syria”. The phrase is used as a way for journalists to almost normalise a conflict which is far from normal. A lot of us, myself included, have no idea of the severity of the war due to the censorship and commercial onslaught of newspapers, and political oppression from governments. In Borders and Games, a double-bill of one act plays, the untold stories of war are explored.
It angers me that I sit beside a couple who giggle at the (admittedly funny) writing, as they seem to enjoy their evening without being inflicted by the horror of the hard truth that the play offers: the severity of the conflict in Syria. They’ve failed to scratch beneath the surface, and instead have achieved their goal: another successful night being entertained at the theatre.
But perhaps this is Henry Naylor’s genius writing: to make what is an inaccessible tale for us ignorant westerners remotely accessible, by adding a pinch of salt in the form of Graham O’Mara’s comic timing. As Sebastian Nightingale, the fame stricken reporter, he sacrifices the stories that need to be told, with stories which earn journalists far too much money and destroy moral in order to be published. This makes the story of Nameless (Deniz Arixenas) more impactful due to the weighty necessity of her story, the purpose of which being the polar opposite to Nightingale’s and his desire for popularity. Nameless is exactly what her title implies: a story for everyone and glorifying no-one in particular. The ultimate goal is reached by the end of the play: an attempt at connecting western ignorance and Eastern vulnerability.
Both Arixenas and O’Mara negotiate the rhythm of the story and capture the simplicity of storytelling without spectacle or distraction. They simply tell tales of the occasional hatred of humankind, and the error in judgements we often fall victim to. It is not hard to let your imagination create the picture painted by the words of the two expertly qualified actors, bringing to life a text with purpose and vitality.
Naylor’s second play, Games, also directed by Skaaning, explores the shared identity of oppressed Jewish athletes, fencer Helene Mayer (Sophie Shad) and high jumper Gretel Bergmann (Tessie Orange-Turner), who were banned from competing in the 1936 Olympic games by the Nazi regime.
Similarly to Borders, the story follows the lives of the two women through individual monologues and direct storytelling, qualifying the need to be heard. However, in Games, their trajectories collide as the women meet over the years during their suppression, and shape a relationship of respect, and at times, disrespect, due their beliefs. The compelling defiance of Shad’s final realisation is, similarly to Borders, a message of the necessity for humanity.
History is indeed in the past, but that doesn’t exclude the fact that discrimination is still present and therefore, Games, despite being specific to the holocaust, is a message ready to be heard by racists of today. Skaaning directs a story that calls for change. It’s a shame, as it seems as though a lot of people aren’t ready to be changed, but that’s where Naylor and Skaaning earn my utmost respect; by practising theatre and telling the stories they want to tell, even when it may sometimes feel like they’re not being heard.
Directors Louise Skaaning and Michael Cabot create worlds that highlight our emotional capacity to be human. Despite political agenda, they have us sharing experiences that we cannot imagine, and I wholeheartedly believe that this is the purpose of theatre: to teach us, and therefore, as cliché as this may be, to inspire us to make decisions that change the world for the better. Please watch Borders and Games not for a traditional enjoyable evening at the theatre, but to learn, acknowledge your ignorance and hopefully be proactive in engendering change!
Borders and Games are playing The Arcola until December 22. For more information and tickets, click here.