The Fear of Breathing is nothing if not daring. Staged recently at London’s Finborough Theatre, it takes verbatim reports from Syria and turns them into an urgent, artistic, thoughtful play.
The material is cut and merged into a narrative that plots both the characters’ journeys, and that of the revolutionary movement in Syria, along with its descent into chaos. Lafferty has handled the material sensitively, for example deftly introducing the concept that protestors are being shot before mentioning the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and introducing characters as peaceful individuals who gradually begin to talk of arming.
Lafferty, speaking to NOW Extra, admitted being daunted by the task, but felt “if you’re going to take a risk on anything, this is the kind of material to do it on.” Having personally gathered at least part of the material - spending seven weeks traveling to Syria covertly - she felt a profound responsibility to take back to Britain what had been confided in her.
Only some interviewees are included in the final piece, which have been carefully selected to give a breadth of perspectives. Amongst them - the rotund, jovial, Damascene Christian hotelkeeper with his ostrich-like propensities, played by David Broughton-Davies; the world-weary soldier who has defected to Lebanon, played by Scott Ainslie; the Homs accountant, forced to exchange number-crunching for searching rubble for bodies, played by Gareth Glen; the idealistic, Jim Morrison-loving, female radio DJ from Zabadani, played by Sirine Saba; the earnest, activist student from Damascus who longs to return to studying, played by Adam Youssefbeygi; and the frantically-typing, media activist from Douma, played again by Gareth Glen.
Lafferty admitted that dealing with such sensitive material - the heartfelt words of those so recently tortured, bereaved, or traumatized – was extremely difficult. “I think it’s about having integrity and honesty… and about being clear with yourself and with what you’re trying to do - not being afraid that you are making theatre. By making scenes of what happens to Quataba in prison will hopefully allow your audience in.”
The scenes Lafferty refers to were brutal representations of the torture of the student, Quataba. For me, they proved too stark a reminder that this was theatre, and jarred slightly alongside the calmer, yet more powerful and authentic passages of speech. Lafferty sticks by her decision, arguing convincingly that two hours of heavy, uninterrupted monologue is alienating for some theatre-goers, being so rhythmically and visually monotonous.
“It will be received very differently by someone who’s used to sitting and just listening, from someone who is used to going to see “Les Miserables.” I come from a family who don’t work in theatre, and if they go to the theatre they want to see music, costumes, spectacle. Of course we’re not trying to make a spectacle, but for me often in this country we’re not making theatre for people, but for a select, academic, white, middle-class niche. You’ve got to engage, engage, engage, and that’s why you experiment with torture scenes, and going into Homs and giving those sensations.”
The innovatively fluid set aids sensory engagement, with sliding mesh, bright lights, and inset screens playing footage of the conflict, interviews such as the infamous Barbara Walter’s Assad interview, and visuals of social media tools. The staging allows us to never be in any place too literally, but to simultaneously be in a prison cell and at a demonstration; in a Damascene hotel and in Bab Amr, Homs.
This is not your run-of-the-mill theatrical output. It is frighteningly current. When a character says, “’cause as I’m talking now, they’re dying,” we all know this is no empty rhetoric. So current as to be an animate work, its body was changing even as it was performed. While this made it hard for the actors, it meant the play continued to pose fresh challenges to its audience.
One of the great things about this play is that it lets its speakers speak for themselves, providing a mouthpiece and physical presence for disembodied voices trapped inside Syria. For me, its most touching and powerful moments were its least “theatrical” or spectacular. The recently bereaved mother, for example, recounting, simply but impassionedly, how her young daughter came to be shot at the window of her apartment whilst joining the chant of Takbeer:
“We went, my daughter and I, to the window. I placed a chair for her because she is in grade one…There was a machine gun. The Syrian security sprayed it and directly and immediately they shot my daughter.”
Sirine Saba plays the mother with an impressive, moving combination of the maternal and the bitter. Her narrative is cleverly interspersed with that of a photographer, Liverpudlian Paul Conroy. He recounts how a little girl was brought into a field hospital, “she was just gasping, gasping, gasping for breath,” emphatic in his soft scouse accent. Though Conroy is speaking about Homs, and the mother Damascus, it brings the girl’s death even more uncomfortably close.
Challenge is central to Lafferty’s concept of what theatre should do – “it should be something that challenges society.” For her, art should provoke a “re-imagining and re-thinking,” something she believes is often forgotten in British theatre. “I understand theatre needs to be commercial, it needs to speak to people, be entertaining and engaging… but I don’t think the majority of British theatre is that either. It is just very stilted.”
A re-thinking this certainly is. Omar confronts the audience: “You in the West are very happy with what is happening. Syrians killing Syrians…You are very happy that after six or seven months there will be no military. Then you will make your intervention. You can remove the Assad regime and bring another… Syria will be weak forever. You are just using us to play your power games. What did Britain do? Britain is no different. What did you do? Talking about the regime and talking about the politics and doing a demonstration? This isn’t supporting the revolution. You did nothing.”
There is no let-up: “You should go home now. Go back to whatever you normally do. Go drink and party. The entertainment is over. But please remember, this is my reality and I will stay here because I have nowhere else to go.”
Their reality is our entertainment, of sorts, and that is an uncomfortable thing - that post-play pint starts to look less appealing. For Lafferty, this is key: “It doesn’t let you sit back and relax. That’s an important part of it, that people don’t leave just saying, ‘oh gosh, isn’t it awful what’s going on in Syria’ - that people leave challenged.”
Challenged we are, yet the play does not offer solutions. Neither does Lafferty. This is not the point: “We should at least be honest with ourselves that we are not doing anything - that is the first step… in my generation there’s a real apathy. The people who do want to do something go on little demonstrations, and you think no, if you really want to re-think, really want to change things within our own society, it’s not so complicated… I think it will come back to bite us.”
I could not agree more, and the play’s emotive challenge is made all the more powerful by the exacting, vividly human and personable representation of many of the characters making that challenge. When we first meet activist Omar - played convincingly by Nicholas Karimi - he tells us he has been watching us, following us: “I’m sure you’re nice people but how do I know? We haven’t met before and anyway, even if you can be trusted, maybe you are being monitored.” The formalities of meeting in an environment of suspicion quickly give way to more mundane questions, “you’re not a Chelsea supporter, are you?”
DJ Faha might just as well be on her way to Shambala as to a Syrian protest. She questions us, “Do you know CocoRosie? Morrissey? Pink Floyd?” and talks about the first romantic flush of revolution. “It is a fantastic time. I paint my face, I dress up, I dance, I sing and most importantly I play my music.” Although the performance by Sirine Saba felt slightly histrionic, this character’s humanity no doubt made Omar’s revelation later in the play – “Faha has disappeared…the one who likes Pink Floyd…she is missing” – all the more jolting.
Thankfully, the play was free from hammy faux Syrian accents, with most of the actors speaking in their native dialects. Though in a sense having Omar speak with a Scottish twang, Peter with a Welsh, Quataba with northern inflections, and so on, distanced the goings-on from their Syrian context, they brought them closer to the British audience, something Lafferty was keen to do. The costumes too, though realistic on their Syrian characters – Peter’s shoes and shirt yelled Syrian style – were slightly “Britain-ised,” “it was a little bit H & M in places, just slightly bringing it in,” explains Lafferty.
This “bringing it in” is the point of this innovative journalistic play. As Lafferty explains: “I hope it makes people aware that we are linked to it, that it’s not something alien, that it’s not something on another planet… We’re so linked, and people forget that, and go ‘oh it’s our government, oh it’s our politicians.’ I just think we need to take more responsibility.”