Theatre and Conflict: Queens of Syria at LAAF

Feature by Jennifer Chamberlain | 04 Jul 2016

From humble beginnings in Jordan, Queens of Syria – a retelling of The Trojan Women by a group of Syrian refugees – has attracted attention from across the world. We talk to the team behind the groundbreaking work, one of the highlights of this year’s Liverpool Arab Arts Festival

As mass media coverage emerged from the Calais refugee camp last summer, the scale of the crisis hit home. Humanitarians took action in providing aid and supplies to the thousands of people living in makeshift accommodation just a few miles from the French port. But perhaps less expected was the arrival of a pop-up theatre, built by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson of Good Chance. The theatre dome remained in the camp for six months, offering a space for refugees to come together, express themselves and share their stories.

In providing this safe, creative space, these two British playwrights not only demonstrated the reactionary nature of theatre but also the important role it has to play in supporting people in desperate situations. The power of theatre extends beyond simply entertaining the masses – it can act as a source of healing and empowerment for traumatised people.

Collaboration is a fundamental aspect of performance and, at its heart, theatre is about individuals joining forces to create something together. This sense of community cannot be underestimated when considering the importance of theatre for displaced people; those who have been forced out of their own communities and left isolated in a foreign land. Forced migration has a devastating impact on a person’s sense of identity and belonging, and theatre can be a valuable mechanism for bringing people together to forge new communities.

Queens of Syria

These values underpin another overseas project led by British producers Charlotte Eagar, William Stirling and Georgina Paget. Queens of Syria is a piece of theatre born out of their work with Syrian refugees exiled in Jordan. Unlike the pop-up theatre in Calais, the creative team decided not to work within camps but instead reach out to isolated refugees living in the capital city of Amman.

Refugees were invited along to a community centre to create a piece of theatre based on the Ancient Greek tragedy, The Trojan Women. Directed by Yasmin Fedda, a film project, also titled Queens of Syria, ran alongside the theatre project to document the creative process from start to finish.

“The project works on many different levels. It’s a psycho-social support project, so it’s drama therapy,” explains Charlotte Eagar. “If you’re a refugee you’re lonely, miserable and bored, so this gave them something to do, which is important in itself. However, one of the things which we hadn’t initially even realised was that this project was creating a new community. The participants have said that they didn’t know who they were before, as refugees, but now they identify as the Trojan Women.”

Although the project was not created solely for women, only women turned up to participate. Perhaps an all-female cast allowed the women refugees to tell their stories more freely, be comforted by their shared experience and create a deeper connection to each other through their sisterhood.

Providing an element of release and comfort for others is a very human reason to undertake a drama project of this kind, and a very simple and understandable reason for wanting to participate. Crucially, there is an inherent catharsis to be found in making and performing theatre, which sets it apart from other artistic mediums when used in this context. If handled sensitively and supported by trained professionals (in this case, a psychologist), engagement in theatre practice can have an extremely positive impact on the mental health of participants who are finding it hard to cope.

Charlotte Eagar picks up on this point: “If you take a play where people can put their own experiences into it, it is immensely cathartic for them,” she says. “It’s a validating experience because your voice is being heard. If you’re a refugee, you’ve lost your sense of identity and status and this can give you back your dignity.”

Another important reason why theatre born out of conflict (and created by those directly affected by that conflict) needs to be created is that not only can it support and empower those involved in making it, but it can also raise awareness of complex situations and educate those watching it.

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Raising awareness is a key aim of this theatre project, and of many others like it. Giving silenced voices a platform to be heard is as important in terms of an audience hearing them as for those speaking. With a media so full of mixed and often biased messages about the refugee crisis, plays like Queens of Syria allow for a more honest and real account to be told through the voices of those who have lived it.

Theatre of this kind moves people in ways that other art forms cannot, and connects with audiences on an emotional, intellectual and political level. It is compelling and confrontational, and you can’t switch it off.

“We want the audience to go away having gained a greater understanding of being someone who’s lost everything,” says Eagar. “When you think of refugees, you just think of statistics. But they’re not statistics, they’re people and they’re people like us. The difference is they’ve lost everything over the past five years and it's through absolutely no fault of their own.”

When you’re fleeing war to find safety, artistic endeavour seems like the least of your concerns. As your everyday existence is reduced to fulfilling basic human needs, picking up a guitar or writing a poem would be the last thing on your mind. In times of conflict, it’s easy to view the arts as trivial.

But despite this, there appears to be a deep, visceral urge for self-expression when the world is at its most cruel. Whether it’s to laugh or cry, this desperate need to communicate emotions and share experiences continues to draw people to the arts – and in particular to theatre – when everything is lost, and all hope is gone.

In the words of a young Syrian woman: “I have a scream I have to let out. I want the whole world to hear it.”

Queens of Syria is at Liverpool Everyman, 15-16 July as part of Liverpool Arab Arts Festival; West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, 18 Jul; Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh, 19-20 Jul