What Connects Us?

QUEENS OF SYRIA, adapted from The Trojan Women by Euripides, performed by 13 Syrian women from a refugee camp in Jordan, A Developing Artists, Refuge Productions and Young Vic co-production, The Young Vic, Thursday, 7 July, 7.45pm.

Near the end of this production, one of the performers, one of the Syrian women, talks about her reasons for doing the project, for performing in a theatre, in a play. She says that theatre seems to matter to people in the West, that by presenting their stories in this way may help, that is help somehow the overall situation in Syria, a situation that seems beyond help. In other words, she is willing to do almost anything, even perform in a play, if it will make a difference.

Also towards the end, another performer mimics those Westerners who come to the refugee camp, ostensibly to help but in fact to see the horror up close, to almost revel in the stories of hardship, of violence. Her impersonation of these people, in English, is very funny.

And again, later in the play, one of the women avers that they aren't there to entertain, to divert. So, what is their purpose?

The performance, mainly in Arabic, as beautiful a language to listen to as to see written, is a combination of some speeches, spoken together by the women as a chorus, from The Trojan Women, and a series of personal experiences and recollections, memories of Syria before the war and from later displacement and life as refugees.

The land now known as Syria was a player, of course, in events in Classical Greece, as a part of the Persian Empire under Xerxes, whose attempted invasion was repelled at Salamis, (Euripides' birthday according to legend) an event which came to define Athens and a seminal moment for Western civilisation.

One of the ways theatre, and classical theatre especially, matters to the West is that it connects us to our cultural origins, our creation myths. But the conditions under which these works were created, from small cities constantly in a state of war, fighting for their very existence, presented in religious festivals, are so different from our own, that it's hard to see modern productions as having relevance beyond academic, specialised interest, for theatrical masochists.

The way the plays were performed was also very different to what we are accustomed to today. There were only a small number of lead performers, normally three in Euripides, with masks indicating different characters, and a chorus. The chorus spoke large amounts of text, presumably together, and it's this speaking in unison which usually does for modern productions. Different things are typically tried, dividing the text between individual speakers, a very small number on chorus members (perhaps two), cutting large amounts.

All this is a long way of getting around to saying that the speaking of Euripides in unison here is just extraordinary. This is how it should sound. This is how it must have sounded, though in Ancient Greek, rather than Arabic. I have no idea how the performers do it. Do they breathe together? I couldn't detect any cue which allowed them to begin in unison, but they did, perfectly. I could have listened to them all night. It was as if we were transported to Greece, to Arabia, to somewhere exotic, a place I'd imagined but never been to. It was mesmerising.

This can, of course, sound patronising, focussing on performance, exactly what the women had inveighed against. But why exactly do we in the West have a problem with speaking, as opposed to singing, in unison? What connects these women to each other? What disconnects us? And what, ultimately, connects us, a Western theatre audience, to refugee women from Syria?

There's no doubt what separates us are our experiences. It's a safe assumption that most of the audience won't have had to flee their homes, have had to abandon their possessions, their friends and families, have had to try to build some kind of life as a refugee, welcome nowhere, confined in camps, in tents, temporary huts, their children not at school, with no work, no future, very little hope.

Their stories are shocking, inconceivable.

Jo Cox, the MP who was tragically murdered recently, in her maiden speech to parliament said: 'we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.' But what unites us, what do we have in common? What, what, what?

And it's not just people from other countries, refugees. We have recently voted to leave the European Union. What connects us to those who voted as we did, to those who voted otherwise? What divides us? In all of the discussions in the media since, I've seen very few articles by those in the arts community. And yet it is art and artists who should be asking these questions, not just journalists, not just politicians.

This production asks those questions.

There are things that we own, feelings, opinions, possessions, houses, money. Our social media profiles. These things tend to divide us.

What connects us seems to be more ephemeral, more abstract, which is perhaps the problem.

For these women, to do this play, this performance, is an act of courage, especially given the hostility to immigrants, to asylum seekers from some sections of the community.

Please go and see this production. This is very important.

Paul Corcoran