At the Q&A, held after the first of only two performances of Syrian playwright, Mohammad Al Attar’s While I Was Waiting, someone asked the director, Omar Abusaada what message he wanted audiences to take away from the play. His reply was that he did not want his theatre to be about messages, he wanted it be about experiences.
Watching this outstanding play is to experience a glimpse of everyday life in Damascus in 2015, in the middle of the Syrian Civil War. Taim, aged thirty, has been found unconscious and near death in the back of a car not far from a checkpoint in Mezzeh, site of a notorious prison which overlooks the city of Damascus.
He is taken to hospital where he remains in a coma, attended by his grief-stricken mother, and visited by his hapless stoner friend Osama, his erstwhile girlfriend Salma and, belatedly by his sister Nada, briefly returned from Beirut where she has taken refuge from the war.
While I Was Waiting not only describes the young man’s comatose state, but that of a country caught between hope and despair, between leaving or staying, of people wanting to do something when so often there is nothing to be done – except somehow endure.
But while the situation is dire, the mood of the play is not ponderous or melodramatic. These are middle-class secular people still trying to go about their lives, having the same family tensions and personal conflicts to be found in any city or town. Not that the civil war and the brutal government crackdown isn’t a very specific terror and the physical obliteration of whole sections of the city and breakdown of services aren’t real.
There is a buoyancy of spirit nonetheless. It is comes from Taim himself as he inhabits the stage like the vibrant young man he once was. He shows us his videos filmed during the first of the anti-government demonstrations – before Syria’s Arab Spring turned into the End Times.
Bissane Alsharif’s simple stage design has a two-tiered framework with a mezzanine from which Taim, accompanied by the ghostly torture victim Omar (played by Mustafa Kur) can look down on everyday events. It is set up like a DJ’s sound desk and the two perform songs and reach microphones down to capture the innermost thoughts of the other characters.
As the play develops we learn how each is responding to given circumstances. Taim (Kinan Hmidan) is in his own displaced – still hopeful- present. His mother, Amal (Hanan Chkir) has, for a mixture of reasons, become devoutly Moslem and reads to him from the Koran. His friend Osama (Mohamad Alrashi) is in a haze of hashish, not wanting to leave the city, but without purpose or optimism in staying. Salma, Taim’s girlfriend (Reham Kassar) is filled with guilt at leaving him but resolute in taking action to find somewhere better- first in Turkey, and then beyond.
This excellent production is an OzAsia highlight. It looks past the headlines and media cynicism and reminds us what theatre does and has always done. It makes the lives of others familiar.
It is the volatile Nada who wants to know what happened to Taim – who attacked him ? The authorities ? Criminal connections ? It is also she who wants to keep Taim’s film projects going – collecting family photos, letters and memories as testament to their history, their presence in Damascus, and their very existence in a country when so many have become The Disappeared.
Both with Al Attar’s almost Chekhovian script, full of human comedy as well as inconsolable tragedy and loss, and Abusaada’s astute, lightly-managed direction, While I Was Waiting welcomes in the audience. It has an understated quality which serves only to enhance its dramatic effect.
This excellent production is an OzAsia highlight. It looks past the headlines and media cynicism and reminds us what theatre does and has always done. It makes the lives of others familiar to us. This talented and dedicated expatriate company of Syrian artists is here, not with a message, but to share and illuminate experiences which would otherwise be incomprehensible.
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