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Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2007

  Damascus / Ravenhill for Breakfast
Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Andrew Haydon
posted 28 August 2007

David Grieg’s Damascus is exactly the play you might have expected from David Grieg, when told he had written a play set in that city. However, when one knows that it has been commissioned for the Traverse’s Main Stage flagship production - outgoing Traverse artistic director Philip Howard’s final production in the role - one could be forgiven for expecting something more spectacular. Something more along the lines of Grieg’s San Diego – the vast, surreal, baggy monster staged at the International Festival a couple of years ago, with large cast and a minimal set that suggested an almost infinite number of locations. In fact Damascus is quite the reverse. This is Grieg in small, intimate mode – more akin to another of his ‘location’ plays: Pyrenees.

Set in one of the city’s cheaper hotels, the play follows Paul, an English language textbook writer, in his attempts to sell his textbook to the Syrian authorities, who don’t want them. The play has a simple premise and a basic set redolent of a ersatz-orientalist hotel with miniature fountain in the lobby hotel more reminiscent of, say, Eldorado than Conde Nast International Traveller. It has a small cast of characters too. Aside from Paul and a bizarre narrator, Elena, there is only Zakaria the hotel concierge, the dean of language education Wasim Al Husseiny and his assistant Muna.

This is a play interested in the way that the actions of individuals in a vast world, with the personal serving to illuminate the larger social and political forces that surround them. And the personal in this context is certainly fascinating stuff. The central problem for Paul is that the TEFL textbooks cannot be accepted as they stand by the Marxist-influenced Syrian authorities – there is a fascinating extended sequence in which Paul and Muna go through the books looking at the elements which must be removed. Through this we get an astonishingly clear impression of the Syrian authorities’ apparent battle against the fomenting of religious fundamentalism across the Middle East. It is interesting that the battle in this context is between the political correctness of British multiculturalism and the Marxist/socialist thinking of the Syrians, which in its attitudes to Islam appears not a million miles away from libertarian resistance to political correctness in the west.

Whilst what the three specific Syrian characters think is presented in a clear light, what is glossed over is the sheer nastiness of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Grieg is at such pains to paint a fair and balanced picture of the Syrian people as Westernised socialist poets, romantics, theorists and - in the case of Zakaria – booze and girl-hungry funsters, that the vileness of the state control under which they live seems to pale into the background.

This could be a precise reflection of Grieg’s own experience – the world of the play is seen very much through the eyes of the Scottish TEFL textbook writer, who could be viewed as a cipher for Grieg’s own experiences working in Syria teaching playwriting for the British Council. The action of the play is as informed by Paul’s perceptions and preconceptions, as with his increasing battle with fidelity to his absent wife.

Funny, witty and wearing its evidently thorough intellectual credentials lightly, this is an intelligent bit of writing. It is also a useful, if not definitive, addition to the rapidly growing corpus of plays concerning the meeting of cultures in the Middle East.

Another such item is Ravenhill for Breakfast 8. To a point, there is little of the usual usefulness in reviewing Ravenhill for Breakfast: it is no use to you, the punter, as a guide, since the USP of this event is that playwright Mark Ravenhill has created 17 entirely new pieces. Each is performed only once as a world premiere reading on each of the successive days of the run – is each directed by a different director with different casts, and each is to be named after a popular work of fiction or art.

So, overarching premise dealt with, RFB 8 – Crime and Punishment – depicts an accelerated, surreal encounter between an Iraqi mother and a young allied soldier. 25 minutes sounds like a remarkably brief time in the theatre. You imagine that it would be hard to get anything accomplished in what is barely the set-up time in Hamlet. But, you can go a long way in 25 minutes. And go a long way, Ravenhill does. What is most remarkable about this dramaticule is the way that it seems always to operate on at least three separate levels, with one or other, or both characters at once wholly real and entirely metaphorical. The oddness that this creates – the kind of disjuncture between the two characters’ worlds and what they are trying to achieve is astonishing.

The mother wants her freedom and, ideally, allied withdrawal along with an apology for the deaths of her son and husband. The soldier wants global democracy and to be loved. That he turns to the Iraqi mother for love is the stroke of genius that sets this brief narrative apart from the hundreds of other Iraq-based things being shown. Crime and Punishment is a brilliant example of the power that theatre can still wield to inspire the intellect and imagination, if it is allowed to function away from the demands of the purely naturalistic.


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