A woman, dressed in a jade-green evening gown, sits at a piano on a tilted stage, playing discordant music, writing down the occasional observation and sipping red wine. Addressing her invisible partner in conversation, she aims to explain exactly why the events that unfold before us in Damascus took place.
Scottish writer Paul has been forced to cover for his boss and fly to Damascus to broker a deal between his company – producers of English language programmes – and a Damascus university. It is Valentine’s Day and Paul, filled with misconceptions of war zones and deserts, just wants to be at home with his wife and regain his sense of smell that has mysteriously disappeared since his flight.
Crumpled and weary, Paul begrudgingly meets with his potential clients Muna and the Dean Wasim, but a chance connection with the self-assured and beautifully reflective Muna causes the city to seep unexpectedly into his veins and suddenly Paul finds himself standing shoulder to shoulder with her, wanting to make a stand in a strange country that previously held no relevance for him.
Each character on stage appears trapped in the life that has unravelled around them. The sweet, but simple hotel porter Zakaria (Khalid Laith) desperately begs Paul (Paul Higgins) to help him meet American girls, in the naive hope he can finally get a visa and escape from the claustrophobic role he has had to fit into in Damascus. Muna (Nathalie Armin) lives her life continually in the past, talking of growing up in Beirut and the freedom she enjoyed studying in Moscow, her tone always slightly mocking, the barriers and defences she has built up never wavering. The Dean (Alex Elliott) dines out on his six-month imprisonment for daring to speak the truth, but has fallen into the entrapments of convention and safety, becoming a fraud revolutionary. And Elena, the transsexual, Marxist, Christian pianist, while obviously representing the diversity of those living in Syria today, is forced to play piano pieces she hates day in, day out.
The set, a sickly peach coloured hotel reception, lacks any character or distinguishing features and could be anywhere if not for the flat screen TV playing an Arabic news channel filled with images of destruction and war, with the occasional appearance from George Bush or Gordon Brown.
It is this political edge that the play is truly addressing. Through the seemingly innocent scenarios set up in Paul’s English books – kids arguing with their parents or day dreaming about growing up to become rich and famous – Muna deconstructs the difference between her and Paul’s worlds.
The Tricycle theatre’s production of Damascus is an atmospheric drama, showing just how your eyes can be opened to the misconceptions you have formed without even knowing it, all when you least expect it.