Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Developing SUPPLIANTS OF SYRIA - Guest post by Liam Rees

In the workshop room for SUPPLIANTS OF SYRIA

For four weeks, director Michael Walling and three actors (Richard Adetunji, Vlad Gurdis and John Rogers) have been exploring response to The Suppliants by Aeschylus, in which the suppliant women flee forced marriage and seek asylum in Greece, but are met by a seemingly endless debate about the correct course of action. I'd been interested in Border Crossings' approach to devising for some time, and was delighted to join them for a week, acting as a dramaturgical outside eye. Here are some observations from the process.

“Democracy is a conversation.” We can agree on that, can’t we?

The oldest written record of the word “democracy” is in The Suppliants by Aeschylus, and this rehearsal room is obsessed with the idea of democracy. As one actor explains, it comes from the Greek ‘demos’ meaning people, and ‘kratos’ meaning power. So the power of the people. But how is that power expressed? In theatre, it’s through our voice, and there’s a constant back and forth of disagreements, compared experiences, and conflicting perspectives in the room. There’s a cacophony of voices in the rehearsal room: the actors, the director, Aeschylus, and the real life suppliants, a group of Syrian women seeking asylum in Turkey. Like Aeschylus, their words and voices have been recorded and interpreted but they can’t be in the room with us. There will always be some gap in our understanding…

“The worst thing that’s ever happened to you is the worst thing that’s ever happened to you.”

Each day in rehearsals is different but always centres around trying to understand the plight of the suppliant women. One day is spent exploring the classical text via mask work. It unlocks a more mythic aspect to the text, less reliant on a personal or psychological connection. In a way the mask protects the actor from any traumatic material. The next day we watch interviews with the Syrian women and everything is all too real. We dig into our own experiences and our own points of connection with the suppliants of Syria. There’s no mask to hide behind. These aren’t characters we’re playing. We’re five men trying to make sense of men at war and male violence against women. At one point we ask if we should have more women in the room; but is that then forcing them to take on more emotional labour? Surely men need to take responsibility for sorting the issues they cause? It’s “not all men” but it is almost always a man. There’s no simple answer and at the end of every day we take care to check in with each other and not take the heavy, personal, messy questions home with us. But the questions never go away throughout the process. Michael shares anecdotes about visiting Turkey and the ethical issues inherent in documenting and interviewing asylum seekers. Is this exploitation or genuine dialogue? Does paying them for their time turn suffering into a commodity to be consumed? Is there any “good” way to tell their story?

“It’s great that we’re having this conversation.”

Every day brings new questions and every new question leads to rewrites and reinterpretations of the source material. There’s Aeschylus’ original text, the interviews, and a meta-commentary performed by the actors as fictionalised versions of themselves.  At times it can feel overwhelming. Are there too many questions that we can’t answer? In the heat of one discussion we’re forced to ask what the point of this project is? Are we simply going in circles? If it’s impossible to understand someone else’s experience then what is the point in trying? Is this conversation actually intended to result in action? Or is it a distraction? A means for us to absolve ourselves of feelings of guilt?

There’s a repeated phrase in one section: It’s great that we’re having this conversation. 

Because silence doesn’t feel like an option.

Everything about this show invites disagreement.

For now, there’s still time for the cast and crew to decide what this show should be.

But that conversation can't go on forever, can it?

Liam Rees is a director who specialises in developing new work and new writing. He has a particular interest in international collaboration and enjoys making theatre that uses digital tech to put the internet onstage and facilitate more international conversations. 

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