Queens of Syria – “We are not acting Troy, Troy is acting us”
The refugee-led production Queens of Syria returned to Jordan at the beginning of August after completing a three-week tour of the UK. Based on Euripides’ anti-war epic The Trojan Women, the play is more than just a reworking—the Euripides text was the centre of a grass-roots drama therapy programme, taking place in Jordan since 2013, and already the subject of an award-winning documentary. Its 13 Syrian performers (all amateur actors) now go back to a life of exile in Amman, after an act of personal and creative courage that few to tread the stage can claim.
As the only form of theatre traditionally performed by women, The Trojan Women was the perfect choice for the project; it tells of the archetypal lament, where women support one another to announce, grieve and philosophise about events that have only just passed. The text of Queens of Syria emerged from such a workshop process, resulting in a play that interweaves the performers’ lived experiences fleeing Syria with the cries to heaven of Hecuba, Cassandra and Andromache on the ruins of Troy.
“I have a scream I want the world to hear”
The use of Euripides aligns the production with a function we’re less used to: a direct address to the polis, or what we might nowadays call the public space. One is ever-reminded through the arrangement of Zoe Lafferty’s chorus of the urgency behind this ‘announcement of tragedy’— the wound is fresh, and the women speak publicly for the first time; part of the legacy of those who have always been first to discover their war-dead. It’s worth remembering that The Trojan Women premiered in 415 BC with the same function—a conscious commentary on the sacking of Melos by the Athenians the same year, drawing—as ever—on Troy for a necessary archetype with which to speak of raw outrage to the city state.
Queens of Syria makes one aware of the interaction of such elements throughout. From the moment the women surge forward from a deep darkness (it is the darkest production I have ever experienced), one is struck by a sense of dread. The fear is worse when one is plagued by the knowledge of the fates of the Trojan women, causing visions to flare of women all over the Middle East waiting in groups to be distributed, whether as sex slaves, refugees or ‘geopolitical issues.’
A scene from the production of 'Queens of Syria'
“I am the mother of the martyr, I have never tasted happiness”
Between an often chilling chorus arrangement—murmuring, then chattering, to rapid, insistent shouting—we hear personal testimonies from the performers; spoken, like the Trojan women, in the form of laments to family members. It is with these stories that nerves rise to their peak in the audience, marked by audible sobs and gasps. One doesn’t need to know the fate of Andromache’s young son—torn away from her and executed by the Greeks—to fear the progress of one woman’s story about her adolescent son coming perilously close to death when fleeing Syria—the epic scale of the production is enough. On that occasion, the woman’s son escaped, but we later see Andromache’s story mirrored further in a retelling of the torture and execution of a cousin, whose mother’s lament at the funeral moved grown men to tears.
The choice of personal stories from the Syrian actors is perfectly judged; one listens with the deepest dread, yet does not ultimately meet with anything like the horrors of Euripides’ text. Most of all, the space is held for the reminiscence of country, home and possessions—the sights and sounds of Homs and Damascus, with the scent of jasmine a recurring motif. Just as Hecuba prostrates herself to the land on which Troy was built, so we hear the Arabic “Suriya” punctuate the performance; ending with the play’s final image, where each woman releases soil through her fingers. The chief lament—as in Troy—is for Syria.
“We are not acting Troy, Troy is acting us”
Between the chorus sections and personal laments, the audience is shown documentary excerpts from the workshop process in Syria. This additional third dimension provides the bridge between the two and reveals a certain depth in the performers’ experience of Euripides’ female archetypes. There are those who identify most with Hecuba, matriarch of the family; those who name Andromache, a young, bereaved mother; and those who choose Cassandra, the voice of injustice condemned as mad in the epic tradition.
Through their work with Euripides in extensive drama workshops, a permissive space was granted for a cry of injustice that forms the emotional peak of both plays. For who indeed has a greater right to scream in outrage than Syrian women in flight or in exile at this time?
“No one took us, only the sea opened his arms for us”
Nowhere is this outrage more evident than in the brave and outspoken performance of Reem Alsayyah, whose choice to remain in the English language seems personally significant. She does not hesitate in naming the main dilemma of the workshop process: “why theatre?”—resolving that “people in the West adore theatre—it’s their language, almost a religion”. Nor does she shy away from open mockery—“why do you have smartphones?—can I make a play from your story?”—and a level of desperation that is at times heart-breaking: “no one took us, only the sea opened his arms for us”. In her performance more than any other, we see the peak of the ancient Greek lament: “by what right, gods…?”
It is at these moments—the urgent cry of an unfathomable logic—that we come close to catharsis; that of the performers rather than the audience, and indeed, the only rightful kind. Yes, theatre is “like religion” for those in the audience and our secular cultural archetypes may be the deepest fixed ethic we can grasp for.
The emotional courage of the Syrian women is outstanding. Add to this the very real fear they felt about appearing publicly to be anti-regime (and thus jeopardising the chance of return to Syria) and one cannot fail to recognise the performers of the Queens of Syria as making the ethical cry of our age. If there is any ‘existential relief’ to be found whatsoever, it is in theirs and theirs alone. – Emily Yates