The Fear of Breathing is a powerful, remorseless and often desperately harrowing selection of real-life stories from the current uprising in Syria; an unfinished revolution that is changing by the day. It deploys the verbatim testimony of interviewed Syrians; largely those demonstrating, then rebelling against Bashar al-Assad’s Ba’ath regime at great personal cost.
Syria is marked by excess: the most sophisticated, urbane, sectarian, secular and resilient of the paranoiac police states of the Arab world and this attains palpable, fearful existence in this production: hence the work’s title. State repression, and iron-willed, organized, Stasi- style coercion is emphasised, but we aren’t shown how much of the Ba’ath regime’s popularity has been fostered by Syria’s ideological claim to be the only stalwart defender of the Palestinians (refusing a deal with Israel on the conquered Golan), and the unfaltering foe of America and western imperialism. The play gives us little, if any, historical context.
If you’ve already been upset by disturbing news footage and newspaper accounts of the situation in Syria then you should expect more of the same, but this time staged relentlessly, which may or may not make you feel closer to the Syrian’s flesh and blood lives. The cast do their utmost to bring these stories to visceral and intense life – though I was unsure of the wide-range of northern British accents deployed throughout. As a realist strategy to confer immediacy and verisimilitude, the voices are staged directly, as if we are the interviewer, which problematically heightens the sense of uncomfortable confrontation and a pleading for a response. The set is a blasted room with moveable iron mesh screens and is used to show various prison cells in which some grimly staged torture occurs, but bearing in mind the highlighting of the role of social media in the early days of demonstrations, there was surprisingly little attempt to work this factor into the scenography; the actual use of TV screens seemed curiously old-fashioned and broadcast news dependent.
There is relatively little in the way of pro-regime voices (a few additional minor ones exist in the original play-script), though there is David Broughton Davis’ Peter, a wealthy Christian Syrian hotel owner who grows over the course of the play to question the regime’s own media, but doesn’t give up his love for his president. The lack of voices supporting the regime deprives us of any idea why the Ba’ath regime has lasted so long, or why it still has supporters in Syria and elsewhere and makes the play rather one-sided and dependent on a reductive logic of sectarianism for such an explanation.
Snippets of TV broadcasts serve to show Kofi Annan and British and American politicians talking (oddly neither French nor Arabs appear), and roundly point out the West’s failure to act (presumably beyond extensive sanctions). But there are no pro-regime voices from Russia, China or Iran, although these have all been most pointed in their support for Assad and their deep distrust of the West and Arab League’s plans for what is viewed as opportunistic regime change and settling of old scores.
If this is political theatre aiming to promote the Syrian revolution, then I wished it had the courage of its own apparent convictions and stated clearly a desire for Western military intervention: seemingly implied by the accusatory and confrontational staging style and the language used. This seems to be epitomised in the speech and desperate appeal to the audience by the understandably traumatised, unnamed Liverpudlian photographer who was with Marie Colvin when she was killed in Homs by shelling and who has lost all distance between himself and the news he reports: ‘The time for talking is now actually over [“¦] Please forget the geopolitics, forget the meetings, forget all of that and do something.’
Alternately, if the play’s aim is to convince the UN Security Council holdouts, then surely playing to an audience in London is preaching to the converted and The Fear of Breathing would be better employed among the dissenters of Moscow, Beijing or Tehran? Britain is after all a long-standing, historic, cold-war opponent of Syria (unlike in the case of Iraq, Libya or Serbia), and not for nothing do Syrian school text books still obstinately promulgate the view that Britain and America secretly intervened in 1948 and saved the nascent state of Israel from destruction. There is little love lost, between Britain and Syria and I fear equally little in The Fear of Breathing, which will not confirm regime loyalists’ heartfelt conviction that the west, the anti-Shi’ite Sunni Arab world and their keenest adversary Israel are, as always, out to get them.
This indicates the problem of verbatim theatre, which here becomes reduced to embody the black and white, binary rhetoric of contemporary journalism. Non-participant ethnographic interviewing is always deeply problematic, perhaps especially when western journalists interview non-westerners at war. A Bosnian academic friend who lived through the siege of Sarajevo as a teenager explained it once to me as the fact you feel you must speak in a discourse and language not your own in getting your message across to journalists who lack your cultural context, and are determined in advance by the unsubtle, un-nuanced discourse of Anglo-American news values (as Foucault suggested, such compulsion is incorporated into the self).
Perhaps the piece would have benefited from an Arab playwright of sensitivity and substance to craft this raw material gathered by clearly impassioned Britons into political art. Not even the fine cast’s impressive acting can stop a descent into relentlessly dispiriting reportage, unrelieved anger over western quiescence continually reaffirmed, and the awful feeling that we are powerlessly, helplessly witnessing a tragedy of sectarian civil war that is inexorably unfolding before us, like some malevolent beast lurching towards Damascus to be born. I hope Syria’s revolution fares better than this: Syrians deserve it.