‘We have men in power and the country is destroyed.’ It’s a powerful first line, which sets the scene for this ‘play for a woman and a man’ by Matthew Zajac – an original view of Syria as told by women who ‘arrived in Turkey with nothing but ourselves’. Zajac weaves a narrative from the stories of Syrian refugee women he interviewed in the commercial centre of Istanbul, the setting for the play.
The play's main character is a woman called Amal; Zajac plays Western businessman Gordon, whose career turns out to be a bombshell for Amal, a former lawyer. But many other women – Marwa, Jadwa, Rania, Farida, Wafa, Mona, and Sawsan – are given expression too, beautifully represented by Dana Hajaj. While Hajaj switches swiftly and easily between them, the thoughtful production includes a backdrop which highlights the name of the person speaking.
The stories they tell about their past lives flesh out individuals, often unseen among the droves of refugees depicted in the media. These women may have arrived with nothing material, but many had careers and good lives and – given the chance in a country where ‘the sky is safe’ – will flourish again.
It’s a beautifully written play, although its central relationship jarred with me: a middle-aged and relatively well-off Western businessman meets a young and beautiful local woman, making a living as an escort. It seems a tad worn as a stereotype, but it does work to convey one meaning of the play – the suggestion that many in the West are, like Gordon, more complicit in this tragedy than we generally acknowledge.
The creative set design is by Nihad Al Turk, a Kurdish Syrian artist now settled in Scotland, whose work is 'infused by the pain of past ordeals’. This perhaps is summed up in the image ‘Sara’ reproduced for the flyer and programme, which includes Zajac’s script for a mere £2. The sensitive production also includes music and songs sung in Arabic, words appearing on the screen in translation in English.
Dogstar Theatre is touring Scotland with the play after the Fringe; it has universal appeal, and I hope it will do as well as Zajac’s recent successful production The Tailor of Inverness. The more ways there are to access the stories behind this tragedy, the better the chance its victims have to flourish on the foreign shores where they find themselves now, trying to eke a living. Potentially, this play has such a role. First and foremost though, it's a beautiful, thoughtful and creative must-see piece of theatre.