The first thing to understand is that Queens of Syria isn’t a play, not really. It may claim that it’s an adaptation of Euripides’ The Trojan Women but that’s not strictly true. The occasional interludes and quotations from the chorus of Trojan women are outweighed both in terms of stage time and dramatic power by the main focus of the play; the experience of the Syrian women.
Spoken in their native Arabic throughout, the women recount their experience of home. They tell us their favourite memories, proudest moments, and what they miss most. They recount to us in plain terms the date that they left and what little they brought with them. They are not so much performers as they are social historians; reluctant auto-biographers. This is a documentary account reminiscent of verbatim theatre but without the contrivance, there is no point at which you feel that these women are repeating another’s words, only that they are speaking their own.
It is difficult to discuss the staging or the performances because there were none of either. The simple costume (Hijabs, Niqabs and simple dresses), native language and obvious discomfort of some of the performers created a tone that felt completely real. It was the first time I believed absolutely in the authenticity of the piece taking place in front of me.
The stage was set out as a simple black box, with seats for the women and microphones for individual reading. It was stripped down and honest. The only props that graced it were the few possessions they had taken as they fled their homes and a box of Syrian sand that they let sift through their hands in a symbolic funeral to their homeland.
One of the fascinating things about the piece is how it manages to be precise in its historiography while managing to not make the mistake of delving into politics. The dates and places are kept precise, but they remain vague in areas relating to Europe. For example, their constant insistence that all they wish to do is return to Syria and rebuild seems like a subtle rebuff of Farage and his Ilk’s ‘Breaking point’ poster and claims of benefit tourism. A darker reference seems to be in the way they use multimedia. In several parts of the play women onscreen relate various character’s experience in Euripides to their own. This is interesting, however, it feels more like a commenting and deconstruction of the play than an adaptation of it. To me the simplistic style of these videos were reminiscent of a hostage tape, a theme which is dealt with in one of the more violent accounts. And I wondered whether this was the point, a way of reclaiming the Dogme 95 format for their female voice, or whether it simply coalesced in my mind to create a rather macabre coincidence.
Overall, the reason the piece remains barebones is that the subject matter is more powerful than any stage production could be. The ensemble’s voices ring out as they sing songs of hope and despair all at once. And when the lights went down all that could be heard was the audience gently sobbing.
Queens of Syria is playing The Young Vic until 9 July 2016. For more information and tickets, see The Queens of Syria Tour website.