Royal Court Theatre
As promised, six live goats clattered on stage halfway through what on the surface, appeared to be a sincere play about the Syrian war and the impact of propaganda and fake news on the remaining inhabitants of a small rural town.
The play begins with a mass funeral for the soldiers from the village who died in the war as martyrs. The government has made a big spectacle of the whole ceremony and the head of this branch of the party is ferociously micromanaging the televised affair, even giving the mothers scripts to answer questions about how it feels to have lost yet another son. When the event doesn’t go according to plan, when one of the fathers Abu Firas insists on seeing the remains of his son, the response to this is to stop filming and project a view of a field of flowers with the reassuring message “Everything is fine”. The result of this tumultuous first gathering is the ‘generous’ government gives each of the bereaved families a goat to replace their loved one.
The chaotic set by Rosie Elnile with different levels, TV screens, high chairs and microphones is not helped by the presence of every single cast member for most of the action as well as seven large coffins that are given a wide berth. These are only removed to be replaced with goats, which don’t diminish the chaos and, if anything, add to it as props are chewed and hind legs bucked.
Let loose on stage to wander and munch at will, these four-legged creatures ended up detracting more from the production than they brought to it. They were deliberately distracting and the idea that they diverted our attention from the serious matter of the war as much as they distracted the families from their suffering is gallant, in theory, but perhaps not constructive in practice.
Not only do we watch the main story about Abu Firas’s fight to prove the propaganda about the fate of the men to be a lie but also in other convulsed plots that don’t bring a lot other than complication. These include long scenes that focus on the domestic lives of the powerless women and the abuse they endure from their war-torn husbands when they return. Also, watching groups of teenage boys waste their time on violent video games and smoking weed, with an eerie sense of dread as their time to be a martyr creeps closer. The play also contains a baffling sub plot which focuses on why the boys call their families when they have caught prisoners, they refer to the enemy as terrorists, and ask them what to do with them. This mystery is added to the fact that none of the men come back wounded, but only as martyrs in cheap wooden coffins.
The script by Liwaa Yazji is powerfully blunt and gives a brutally realistic representation of a country consumed by war. As the writer is Syrian it gives us an opportunity to see the war from the inside. Not only that, but she chooses to depict these intertwining stories from the domestic side, exploring how the conflict impacts the home rather than the all too common war reports that are emblazoned across our daily news. Some of this deadly beauty is lost in the somewhat clunky translation by Katherine Hall, and even more is hidden by Hamish Prie’s direction. The choices are laudable hypothetically, especially the diverse casting, but the ability to meld everything together seemed to be lacking, leaving us with a slightly incomprehensible clutter with long pauses and six goats.
There is too much going on in this play – far too much - and this sheer volume of content is not helped by the adorable white goat trying to eat the actors’ clothing. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the presence of livestock, I’m not convinced as to how the bleating creatures deepened the impact of an otherwise thought-provoking play. However, I would have been bored without them, as the final product felt like a jumbled rehearsal, with the poignancy buried under bright pink walls, fridges and high plastic chairs.