We are plunged into the life-and-death struggle in Aleppo, N. Syria, during the long and bitter years of the struggle against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. Rather than being compelled to view events down the wrong end of a telescope via our TV screens, we zoom in on the city's front line and thence into the living room of Salah and Aisha (a sympathetic Rhian McLean, complete with what sounded to me an authentically-throaty accent), a Syrian couple who risk fatal reprisals by sheltering two Britishers, one a freelance war photographer, the other a teacher desperate for news of her fiancé who has been abducted by Bashar's secret police. The apparently nondescript nature of this couple turns out to be deceptive; the mild-mannered Salah is transformed plausibly by Marlon Solomon in Act II into a rifle-slinging freedom-fighter, proclaiming:
"My anger has no limits"
as Aisha agonizes over the risks he takes, the danger of sheltering the Westerners, and the future of her unborn baby.
One of these Westerners is Mark, a freelance war photographer (a physically imposing Garth Williams), and this makes for an effective dramatic device in that the use of screened photos by the project's originator and producer Benedict Power, of broken lives and wrecked infrastructure can be smoothly integrated into the storyline as well as introducing variety into the narrative. Mr Power has been imaginatively assisted by stage designer Meriel Pym with atmospheric but unfussy sets - an ethnic woven, stylized landscape of many colours, a suggested tent and flooring of Persian carpets. Just right for the brief Arabian Nights-type folk tales that punctuated and commented obliquely on the contemporary tragedy. Later, as the narrative darkens, so the set is boiled down to a spartan room flanked by the jagged remains of a wall.
Nor had sound and light been neglected: audience member Markus Baumgartner, just off a plane from Johannesburg, told me that beforehand he had been worried there might be too much sound and light to figure the war environment, but his fears proved groundless since in the event Karen Lauke's sound design was admirably sparing of explosions and crashes, and all the more effective for it. For the final 5 minutes of the drama she had programmed a muted but insistent droning sound hovering over the dialogue, at once effectively unsettling and puzzling. I was especially taken by the musical accompaniment by a bare-footed Chris Davies from a perch in a version of a canopied majlis. He showed me his range of instruments – a zither, a thumb piano, a piccolo, a xylophone, gamelan gongs, a Cuban drum, an oud (a Middle Eastern forerunner of the lute) and others. At several student shows I've attended this year the music overlaying the dialogue has been a little overbearing. Mr Davies demonstrated how it should be done – always tactful in illuminating the script as well as subtly heightening it. Delightful!
This was docu-drama, originating from the Lowry Theatre and Imperial War Museum in Manchester, and whether writer Rob Johnston has succeeded in populating the stage with characters who are more than a personification of attitudes and contrast is open to question. Overall I would suggest perhaps not, though there were flashes of almost poetic insight: the moment when Aisha describes seeing two soldiers taking a bet over a child's future, and one or two of the soliloquies; also the bald statement from Salah that
"We resist Bashar by staying in Aleppo and not dying"
contained individualised, defiant despair. The teacher Claire made less impact, never really breaking out of her box marked 'worry', and her football references were tiresome. Sophia Hatfield was a little over-inclined towards shrillness, though lively in the folk tale interludes.
Scheherazade, forced to tell stories for her life over 1,001 sleepless nights, would have nodded her veiled head in recognition of the timeless, insatiable desire for power and human domination that lie at the heart of this modern conflict. Mr Power and his associates have done us a service on a balmy Oxford night in reminding us of the fragility of the democratic norms that we are inclined to take for granted.