Thirteen women wearing hijabs and niqabs walk to the middle of a sparse black stage. They stand like a choir facing the audience and in Arabic they chant, in unison, lines from Euripides’ Trojan Women. The group then disperses and most of the women take a seat on the edge of the stage. They begin – one by one – to step forward and tell their own true stories.
I didn’t think that Queens of Syria, an adaptation of Euripides’ great anti-war tragedy performed by female Syrian refugees, would be easy watching but I wasn’t prepared for just how merciless it would be.
The stories begin with the women remembering their life before the war. The smell of cloves, Eid spent with family, watching neighbours hang out washing. Each woman stands, introduces herself, and looks directly at the audience as she tells her story. Most of the women speak in Arabic and as they do, the English translation appears on an electronic sign that looks a little like a countdown sign at a bus stop.
Rehan, from Homs, was engaged when the protests began. She began to feel fearful that the conflict would escalate to war so her fiancé bought her flowers to cheer her up. Their wedding had to be small because large gatherings were considered dangerous.
Mais, from Damascus, monologues a letter to her mother, in which she says how much she misses her, and worries about her diabetes.
Many of the women’s speeches take the form of letters – to their mothers, their fathers, their children. It becomes clear that for many families the older generation stayed behind and are left dealing with war, or worse.
Rasha’s letter is to her four children, lamenting having to leave them behind and never seeing them grow up and what they accomplished.
Maha was pregnant when the war began. When she went into labour she kept quiet and tolerated the pain all night because there was shelling overhead and they could not leave the house. In the morning, when she couldn’t take the pain anymore, no one would take her to the hospital for fear of snipers. Her sister delivered her baby. He’s called Yousef.
There’s no embellishment with the stories the women tell. They’re brutally direct and it is the every day details that make them so powerful.
In between the individuals’ stories the women unite centre stage to become the chorus – ancient Greek style – and voice some choice speeches from the original drama. Andromache’s declaration that it is better to be dead than live in such misery is one.
One of the most shocking tales is Reham’s. She tells the story of her cousin Hussain, who was kidnapped and a ransom demanded. His mother went to the kidnappers and tried to negotiate but they had already killed Hussain so they took her hostage. Hussain’s father went to the hospital to identify his son’s body and saw that his son had been brutally disfigured. Reham’s father went to negotiate with the hostage takers and brought Hussain’s mother home. When she arrived at the house all her family were there for her son’s funeral. She hadn’t realised he had died.
Short clips projected onto the back of the stage provide some much-needed light relief. The women explain the impact of being involved in the production and why they relate to the original drama that depicts the aftermath of the Trojan War.
The films allow some breathing space and guide the audience to thoughts of the task involved in putting this kind of production on. When we return to the women’s stories they are all the more powerful for having reflected on the behind-the-scenes accomplishments.
This isn’t a story with a beginning, middle and end. These are real people, people like us, standing in front of you telling you what has happened to them. At one point anger is directed at the audience, why aren’t we accepting Syrians? “Only the sea opens his arms to us.” The next woman to tell her story shakes and the audience sits deathly still, other than hands wiping away tears, the emotion palpable.
There is no politics, no mention of Assad, and little philosophy in this production. It is women’s experiences told consistently, powerfully, boldly. It is not a pleasant production to watch but if you believe that bearing witness is important, that the impact of war is worth acknowledging and the victims should have their voices heard, then you have a duty to see it.
Young Vic, 66 The Cut, London, SE1 8LZ
5 – 9 July 2016