‘Is this your first time in Damascus?’ we are asked by a chatty receptionist, as music plays in the background and the makings of tea sit invitingly on a tray. Sharing wall space with sun-bleached tourist advertisements, only the conspicuous face of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad hints that things in this ancient city may not be entirely as peaceful as they seem. Indeed, during the time we eight ‘tourists’ will spend in Lebanese director Lucien Bourjeily’s vision of Damascus, a darker side of Syria, of humanity, will be brutally revealed.
Shouting breaks through our jovial tour guide’s attempts at conversation and before we really know it we’re lined up against a wall, bags shoved over our heads, being bundled into the back of a van which speeds off on a blacked-out joyride. Hauled in front of soldiers we learn that one of our party has been illegally filing negative stories to the press, and until the offender confesses we will remain in this dank and dusty prison with fellow victims of the regime. Shoved around decrepit corridors, we encounter the stories of bound and bloody bodies on the floor and of men with haunted eyes living in the shadows for daring to speak up. Distant shouts and gunshots punctuate the accounts of former political detainees and our emotive response to them is only limited by the concurrent fear of what comes next.
It doesn’t take long for my racing heartbeat to drown out the silent mantra – ‘it’s only theatre’ – that has been looping over in my head from the moment I arrived. Fear is irrational and when deprived of those basic things that make us human – our senses, voices, freedom of movement – stress soon takes over. Disorientated and stumbling, we meekly obey barked foreign commands, learn not to flinch when prodded and fling ourselves prostrate against the wall at the sound of approaching footsteps. These terrifyingly convincing actors do not need the traditional conventions of theatre to establish their authority over us – our anxiety does the job for them, and when the bags are ripped from our heads our eyes focus on our captors with a loathing and disgust reserved for the greatest villains.
Yet there is another reason why I feel so uncomfortable, despite knowing that I’m in the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall and will be leaving when my 66 minutes are up: this is not only theatre; it’s a theatrical reenactment of something that is happening every day, around the world, which is inherently challenging to report yet wilfully negligent to ignore. Intimidation, arbitrary detention and torture are threats faced by citizens, journalists, hell, even actors, on a daily basis, and here we are, nice middle class theatregoers, playing at it for fun? The thought leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
But the process of performance does not belittle reality. Most theatre exploits to varying extents the existence of human suffering, and if we start to argue that certain subjects must be exempt from artistic representation then surely only the Daily Mail has won. What matters is the sensitivity and respect paid to the subject, and Lucien Bourjeily’s handling of the issue and stories of former political detainees is strikingly fair-minded. Multiple facets of the debate within and without Syria are presented passionately and rationally, and after the initial threats of violence we come to be bombarded with reasoning. Layla and Imane, two women with whom we briefly share a squalid cell, debate strategies of opposition. Should they meet violence with violence, or temper it with argument and awareness? The conversation feels like one that is being had over dinner tables or between activists around the world, and it is no less pertinent just because it takes place under the guise of theatre.
Yet even if we defend the right of artists to tell these stories, how should we feel about the audiences who rock up to subject themselves to this sort of treatment, in some cases purely for entertainment? As I stare at crumbling plaster, hands pressed up against the wall, a voice inside my head nags that this is not fun, this is life and death, how dare I get a kick out of it or go home and think about how many stars the experience merits. Later the hypocrisy of going to theatre, having parties, living life while the suffering of the Syrian people continues is laid bare and ridiculed under the chief interrogator’s cold gaze.
The defence that life has to go on despite the existence of suffering both near far feels null and void with the faces of the detainees we have met fresh in our minds. Again and again, 66 Minutes in Damascus confronts us with questions to which there seems no definitive answers. Bourjeily has deliberately cast the audience as victims so that we do not passively listen to the stories of others, but fleetingly and fictionally share in their situation. And yet it is at the hands of the audience that the piece feels most vulnerable. At first we’re all just a bit too polite to maintain the illusion of a life threatening situation, silently submitting to the initial kidnap like lambs skipping to the slaughter. Left alone, every embarrassed giggle jars us right back into the real world, while certain audience members seem, if not plants, then remarkably well primed to ask the right questions of the detainees to shove the narrative on, occasionally at the expense of letting the moment or story linger for everyone to absorb. More successful are the interrogations, where soldiers allow us a voice while strictly managing and manipulating our responses. By maintaining a delicate balance, 66 Minutes in Damascus largely succeeds in allowing the audience the freedom to make it their own while ensuring the desired atmosphere and narrative.
Few pieces of theatre can claim to be consciousness altering, but by putting us through this physical and emotional onslaught Bourjeily ensures that we won’t forget what we have felt, seen and heard in a hurry. We do not leave with any answers, but at the very least we have been forced into listening and asking questions. For that alone these 66 Minutes in Damascus need to be endured.
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