Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: 66 Minutes in Damascus, Shoreditch Town Hall

Review: 66 Minutes in Damascus, Shoreditch Town Hall

Published on Culture Wars, 25.06.2012

As you follow your guide towards the tour bus that is due to cart the group around Damascus for a day of activities, you know what’s coming. At some point, round some corner or down some steps, you will be jumped by the Syrian Secret Police and arrested. You tread gingerly – a faint braced uncertainty in each step – but gamely, even excitedly.

Yet still, when it happens, in a blur of Arabic and English at high volume, it sends your adrenaline shooting up. You stand facing the wall as ordered – palms flat against it, arms outstretched – and you spin around when told. You passively allow these men to place a hood over your head. One by one, you’re walked into a vehicle, which darts off, driving not as London drivers do, but with the bunny-hopping jerks, splutters of speed and heaving brakes of elsewhere and urgency.

What does it mean for theatre to simulate an arrest at the hands of the Syrian Secret Police in a similar way that paintballing might simulate a warzone? At one level, this is how Lebanese director Lucien Bourjeily’s 66 Minutes in Damascus works. It’s an adrenal thrill; an RPG that’s closer to reality – or what you image a particular reality to be like – than a first person computer game. In these terms, it’s somewhat problematic.

Looked at unquestioningly, 66 Minutes in Damascus offers an audience safe environment to experience something that would, were it to happen us in real life, be life-threatening and traumatic. Something you definitely wouldn’t want to undergo. That experience is – both inevitably and knowingly – a pale imitation of its real-world counterpart. There’s certainly a game being played between performers and audience, but the production exists first and foremost not to thrill or entertain, as theatrical fairground ride. Like the Medal of Honour that’s set in Iraq, it runs the real risk of cheapening and disrespecting those genuinely involved and in danger. However, its intentions are good. (They must be, right?) It exists primarily to instil empathy for those undergoing the experience for real, to raise awareness and understanding of that reality in visceral terms.

When your hood is eventually removed, you are lined up in a makeshift office underground. An army official sits behind a desk eating a tomato, another trace of this exotic elsewhere. He asks our names and what we’re doing in Syria; what we know about Syria. He corrects our answers with the Assad government line, stressing the country’s free health services and education. Little wonder that 97% of the population voted for him at the last election, he says, blithely. Why are we here? One of us must be the reporter that’s been sending missives back to London. He and his men will find out and, from here, we’re marched around, ordered against more walls, threatened and locked in rooms with various other prisoners.

Given the thrill factor, I couldn’t help but remember BADAC’s 2008 Edinburgh Fringe offering The Factory (also known as ‘The Show That Damn Near Broke Immersive Theatre‘). For the benefit of those lucky enough to have avoided this seminal travesty, it was essentially a holocaust-themed walkthrough that attempted to evoke the experiences of concentration camp internees for its audience. Cast as the incarcerated, we were barked at, ordered to “fucking move,” and shepherded into a small room that stood in for a gas chamber. Basically, it was unutterably naïve, but that didn’t prevent it from also being unforgivably offensive.

Bourjeily’s piece looks equivalent – a crass mock-up of a moment in peril for those unlikely to have experienced anything like it in reality – but it’s not quite. For starters, unlike the unreachable trauma of the holocaust, the events being simulated in 66 Minutes are ongoing. The Factory was really an exercise in indulgent sentimentality. (Its director said at the time: “The only thing that matters is that they’ve felt something.” And it’s not like anyone was on the fence about the holocaust.) Bourjeily’s piece can at least justify itself as a sort of awareness-raising activism. It can conceivably have an effect beyond dead-end self-flagellation.

Beyond that, however, the dramaturgy in 66 Minutes is actually more complicated than mere simulation. It’s self-aware; knowing even. It relies on feeling like an RPG or multisensory first-person camera shot. In fact, its very success hinges on its own fakeness. It functions half-in and half-out of its dramatic situation, so that it can treat us as captives and theatregoers simultaneously. “What are the Syrian people to you?” the army official demands of us, “A night at the theatre?” Well, yes. There’s an implicit criticism of our even playing the game, of the thrill the show induces.

That blurring of our role allows Bourjeily his best hand. He manages to equate the rules of the guard-prisoner relationship with those of performer-audience. So just as the prisoner is expected to comply with the guard, the audience member is expected to do as the performers require. At the same time, Bourjeily leaves us enough room to feel like we are pushing against the edges of the piece and, in the process, rebelling against our guards.

First, in the office, his cast let us laugh at the contrivance of the event. Rather than immediately shouting down any such transgressions and therefore increasing resistance, as BADAC’s piece did, the guard patiently asks what’s funny and waits for us to take it – and him (event and character) – seriously. Later, when we are left unattended, ordered to remain with our hands against the wall, we start to tentatively explore our new surroundings, be they corridor or cell. Nonetheless, every time we think we hear a guard’s approach, we spring back into line, rank and file and absolutely compliant. There’s an uncertainty about what might happen and an unwillingness to find out. Finally, we are in some way broken: hooded and led back into the real world, we are left standing against a wall. It takes a while before we realise that we are ‘free’ once more.

Bourjeily’s comfort with – even reliance on – this duality actually makes his production far more robust. We stop laughing at its contrivances and accept its improbabilities, such as the prisoner who claims to be the first protestor in Syria, having spent twenty years imprisoned in the dark. Moreover, it allows Bourjeily the right to include more theatrical modes of presentation, monologues designed to pass on socio-political information in character. Yet, there is also an astonishing authenticity here: when audience members ask questions in Arabic, actors reply in kind and happily improvise answers, while veering gently back to the meat of their particular scene. It’s remarkably flexible as theatrical event.

What the form can’t do, of course, is arm you with the necessary stats, figures and case-studies to offer a cogent evaluation of the situation in Syria. Instead it confronts. What it does rather well is confront you with your own assumptions and received opinions. It forces you to be honest with yourself about it and to consider Syria at both micro and macro levels, zoomed in to its streets and against a wider global context. Perhaps the visceral experience – even watered down thus – is harder to shake off than the stats of verbatim theatre and the sentiment of staged stories, in which case, it might just push you into action when the simulation stops.

Photograph: LIFT

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