Theatre preview: Queens of Syria, West Yorkshire Playhouse

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An extraordinary theatre production comes to Leeds next week featuring a cast of Syrian refugees. Yvette Huddleston reports.

More than five years on the conflict in Syria shows little sign of resolving.

In that time nearly half the country’s pre civil war population – amounting to more than 11 million people – have either been killed or forced to flee. The number of displaced people continues to grow – the figure currently stands at 6.6 million – as the refugee crisis intensifies and we witness the worst humanitarian crisis of our time.

The statistics are heart-breaking and behind each number is an individual story, some of which are being told through an extraordinary theatre project which began in Jordan three years ago and which comes to the West Yorkshire Playhouse next week.

Queens of Syria, first staged in Amman in 2013 and the subject of an award-winning documentary, is a modern adaptation of Euripides’ classic anti-war tragedy The Trojan Women. The production features Syrian women, all refugees and none of them professional actors, who skilfully combine their own stories of war and exile with the ancient Greek text. The bitter irony is, of course, that a play which was first produced in 415 BC, warning about the terrible consequences of war, should still hold such relevance in the 21st century.

“When the initial production was staged in Amman, where all the women are now based, there was a real desire to create an environment where people could talk about their experiences and the current situation in Syria,” explains director Zoe Lafferty. “Looking at the story of The Trojan Women was a way of creating a platform to develop that conversation. I came on board a few months ago to create a new version which is up to date with what is happening in 2016 and to explore what might be relevant to a British audience. This is the perfect opportunity for the women to tell the story from their point of view and to try and bridge the gap between people from Syria who are now refugees and people in the UK who have seen the statistics and the news reports.”

The cast of 13 women range in age from 21 to 55 and have various backgrounds and life experiences. There are students, professional women, mothers and housewives, all with their own story to tell. “Some of the women are incredible writers,” says Lafferty. “They have an interest in writing poetry and short stories – and that is fantastic. Everyone has contributed to writing the piece because it is about them.”

Lafferty’s previous work as a director has focussed on current conflicts, political power imbalance and situations of human rights violations around the world, including Afghanistan, Yemen, Lebanon and Palestine – where she is associate of Palestine’s Freedom Theatre. “The theatre I want to make holds up a mirror to society,” she says. “I believe theatre can be used to change or challenge things.”

The subject matter the women are tackling together in Queens of Syria is complex and difficult but working on the project, says Lafferty, has also been an uplifting, life-affirming process for everyone involved. “Making theatre allows you to have a deeper connection with others. You get that sense of feeling part of a family and having the space to explore your own identity and emotions. The women have gone through incredibly tough experiences and it always releases something to be able to communicate that. I hope that people in the UK, through the play, can begin to understand the situation on a different level.”

Lafferty has been impressed by the tenacity of the women and their determination, despite everything they have been through, to look forward. “We are also trying to incorporate into the piece what can happen next to bring about change. The actors really articulate that – what they want to do is to go back to Syria and rebuild the country in a positive way. We can learn from that positivity – these women are continuing to fight for change and a better future.”

Queens of Syria is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse on July 18, 7.30pm. www.wyp.org.uk

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