It is widely recognised, if not widely known, that the Syrian war was sparked by an act of revolutionary art. After the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt had fallen in the Arab Spring, a 14-year-old boy urged on by his mates wrote “You’re next, Doctor Bashir” on his school wall. The boys were arrested and tortured, and the protests that followed snowballed into the conflict that remains unresolved today.
Borders is the latest in playwright Henry Naylor’s Arabian Nightmares series, all critically acclaimed works set in the Middle East (you may have seen Angel and Echoes at Fringes past).
Borders contrasts the trajectories of two very different artists – ‘Nameless’ (Avital Lvova), a Syrian graffiti artist who nightly risks her life to challenge the Assad regime; and Sebastian Nightingale (Graham O’Mara), a British photographer who gets his big break with a photo of the world’s “most tedious tyrant”, Osama Bin Laden.
While Nameless struggles, often violently, to uphold the integrity of her art, refusing to compromise her vision, Sebastian gives up his fight, selling out to pursue the celebrity game.
The contrast between Sebastian and Nameless is striking, and works well to explore the political role of art, while highlighting just how different the stakes are for these two characters. Naylor effectively emphasises the trivialisation of Sebastian’s turn from the gritty and dangerous world of conflict zone photojournalism to the glamour of celebrity culture. Sebastian, through his privileged circumstance, can indulge in the luxury of compromise. Whereas for Nameless, “compromise is defeat.”
The play isn’t over-handed in its moralising though. The moral voice is given to Sebastian’s mentor, John Messenger, but it remains thought-provoking rather than didactic as we chart Sebastian’s astronomical career growth (and personal decline).
While on its surface, the play illustrates the brutal horror of life under Assad’s regime, particularly for its artists and activists, it is really a condemnation of “the rot” that has infested the West since 9/11: our silence, our fear, our division. It also implicates us, the audience, in this cultural and political divide – how culpable are we all in bringing about Bin Laden’s vision?
The performances are riveting, particularly from Avital Lvova. Graham O’Mara is at his best as John Messenger, who evolves from pompous British war correspondent to beleaguered but passionate advocate. At times, the writing and performances teeter on the edge of “too far” – but with such an important subject, perhaps a slap in the face is just what we need.
Borders is the most effective (and least moralistic) of the Arabian Nightmares series. The refugee crisis of the Mediterranean has already fallen into the waters of media obscurity – the kind Sebastian laments, then plays into – but its ramifications are ongoing. As an audience member in a country with some of the most severe and inhumane border restrictions in the world, the play’s subtle condemnation is damning. It proves just how necessary such politically-charged theatre – and all revolutionary art – can be.
With a standing ovation from a room full of critics in its opening performance, Borders is one you won’t want to miss.