Sunday, June 24, 2012

'66 Minutes in Damascus' at Shoreditch Town Hall, 23rd June 2012

(promo picture for the play, the rest of the pictures on this page are news photos from Syria)
'66 Minutes in Damascus', written and directed by Lucien Bourjeily, is probably the most intense and terrifying theatrical experience I've ever been through in my life.  I'm writing this on the last day of performance, so I feel somewhat comfortable spoiling things, this is a production that works so much better when you don't know exactly what's going to happen going in.

I had only read a very vague description of what was to come, but I'd gathered that it was an interactive theatre experience that would try and show me a little of what life is like in contemporary Damascus as the Assad regime cracks down on the populace with the might of the Syrian Armed Forces while the Free Syrian Army retaliates.  I was a little concerned that this would be a kind of vicarious warzone tourism for Westerners.  I didn't want  something that was just going to shake me up with a series of loud bangs and flashes to give me some sensory overload, a kind of a theme park, rollercoaster view of the conflict.  I needn't have worried, as while this did leave  me in a kind of wired, adrenaline overload, it did it while presenting a frighteningly plausible simulation of an experience in an Assad  regime detention centre.

The premise is that myself and seven other participants are Western tourists that have come to Damascus to sightsee.  As we arrive at Shoreditch Town Hall we're led into a hotel lobby.  There's posters advertising the sights of the city, and small cups of tea to drink.  A very pleasant receptionist takes our details and as people fill into the room she tells us about the sights we'll be seeing in the city, how we'll have to take off our shoes in order to enter the Umayyad Mosque and to be careful at the market and so on.  Eventually our friendly bus driver arrives, and we follow him through the building as he teaches us a few basic Arabic phrases.  As he jokes with us we are led down some stairs, and then out of the corner of our eyes we see a man with an AK47 assault rifle by the stairs.

Before we have time to process what's going on everyone starts screaming in Arabic, and we're shoved against the wall with our hands above our heads over our heads.  All around us men are shouting orders in Arabic, and one by one we have black bags placed over our heads, blocking out all light.  It's astonishing how terrifying and disconcerting this is.   Even with the mental safety net of knowing I'm in Shoreditch at a theatrical performance, I still find my legs and hands shaking involuntarily.  We're roughly led outside and into a van, where our hands are buckled down between our legs and people beat the outside of the menacingly.  We're driven around while Syrian music is blared at us, and the van rocks over rough terrain.  It's difficult to tell where we are going, and the van drives for a sufficiently long time as to completely disorientate us.  It stops, and still blind and hooded we're marched, hands on each other's shoulders into a room where the hoods are pulled off.

We seem to be in some Syrian Army commander's office.  He sits behind a desk as we line up in front of him, an ominous picture of Assad bearing down from the wall behind him (his picture is omnipresent throughout the performance).  He checks our names against a list, and informs us that one our group is a journalist and has 'illegally' sent a report out of the country.  He's going to find out which one.  He then threateningly lectures us about Western intervention in the Middle East, repeating a popular saying; "before there was one Saddam Hussein, now there are millions of Saddam Husseins'. He quizzes us as to whether our system of government is much better than his.  It's valid political commentary, even though it's being used to justify the murderous Assad regime in Syria.  It's not like we can debate this guy though, we've been too shocked into submission to argue.   When he pointed at me and asked my name, I was surprised by how shaky and nervous my response was.  Again, even though I 'knew' it wasn't real, apparently my body didn't.

Following this lecture we're marched down a corridor and made to stand arms in the air and heads up.  Also lying in the corridor is a beaten and bloody man under a sheet.  He desperately asks us to contact his mother and let her know that he's here.  I find myself somewhat paranoid and avoid talking to him, how do I know he's not some plant put here to get information out of me?  Very quickly you slip into a paranoid and somewhat placid state - I found myself having Stockholm Syndrome-like thoughts of pleasing the people that were ordering me around.  You find yourself doing what they say, marching, running, standing against the wall, without thinking.

We're next led into a darkened room where the door is shut.  A shambling, mumbling presence creeps up behind us and whispers in our ear.  It's another prisoner, who tells us we've been here for 20 years.  He asks where we're from, and when we respond Britain, he says we're 20 years too late.  This moment in the darkened cell with the somewhat deranged prisoner is sort of a moment of downtime for us.  He leads us around his cell and tells us about his life and political opinions, talking to a sock puppet which represents Assad.  The slight slackening of the psychological pressure on us makes this feel a little more expository than what we've seen so far.  There is a rattling at the door as the chains shake, and we scuttle instinctively back to our submissive position against the wall in order to avoid being singled out for abuse.

We're then lead down a corridor to another prison cell, this one much smaller, but better lit.  We're in the cell with two women, who have been renamed Muhammed and Ahmed, so the other prisoners don't realise they're being held captive with women.  They tell us about their lives, one has been arrested for writing an English language blog, and the other has a husband that refused to fire against civilians.  They explain how they pass the time by playing games with each other and arguing.  The subject of armed resistance vs peaceful demonstration is debated, with the girls taking opposite positions.  I'm drawn into the debate, and say that peaceful demonstration can only go so far, and that violent resistance is justified when the state uses indiscriminate lethal force against the populace.  She responds by saying that she fears a civil war will erupt, and I point out that the situation in Syria is already a civil war.  A lot of people are going to die no matter when happens, and they may as well be the authoritarian child-murderers that are the muscle behind Assad.  I consider myself to have a very cursory understanding of the current situation in Syria, so I'm not exactly on comfortable ground debating this.  Before too long though, the guards are back, and we're marched down the corridor into the 'torture' room.

The room features a dentist's chair, and variety of sinister looking tools sit on racks behind it.  Pools of blood lie on the floor around it, as does an ominously sparking car battery.  One person is singled out to be tortured, and as 'luck' would have it, it's me.  I'm strapped to the dentist's chair, and everyone else is led out.  Now it's just me and the torturer, who barks questions at me and accuses me of being a Jew.  He shines a bright light in my eyes, and blows long plumes of cigarettes smoke into the room.  Then he gets called away for a moment, and I'm left on my own in the room.  I decide "to hell with this", and escape.  I slip my hands free of the restraints and peek around the door to see if anyone's watching in the corridor.  No-one is. I quickly work out a plan.  There are two doors opposite the interrogation  room, but I don't know what's behind them, and worry that they might lead to dead ends.  In the end I settle for squeezing myself into the space behind the door to the torture room, and plan to close the door on the interrogator and run off towards the exit.

As I'm hiding behind the door, heart pumping and trying to be as quiet as possible I reflect on whether I'm supposed to be trying to escape or not?  I mean, I wasn't restrained particularly effectively, is this what they want me to be doing?  Is this a psychological test of my submissiveness - to see whether I will do what they tell me to, even though a way out is right in front of me?  It strikes me that this 'escape' attempt isn't really telling me much about the current situation in Syria, it's more allowing me to act out a Hollywood style prison break and fuel some heroic masturbatory fantasy of mine.  If I was really being held in a torture room by the Syrian Army, would I really try and escape?  This is after all, a piece of theatre, and I know there are going to be no real consequences to my escape.  Even so, my heart is thumping like a drum, and I'm holding my breath as I hear the guard coming back down the corridor to my hiding spot.  As he turns the corner into the cell I try and close the door on him and run away.  He chases me, and quickly I find myself cornered in a dead end and surrender.  A hood is placed over my head again, and once more I'm lead down a corridor while being prodded with clubs.  I am asked if I 'love Assad', and still flush with heroic feelings I 'bravely' respond 'No!' repeatedly.  Things go quiet, and after a while I take my hood off and look around.  

I'm back surrounded by the rest of the group, who mostly still have their hoods on. The smiling face of the theatre assistant greets me, it's over, it felt like a lot longer than 66 minutes..  Everyone seems shaken up by their experience.  I'm still jittery, hyped up on adrenaline with my hands and legs shaking a little.  Stepping out into the Shoreditch nightlife feels incredibly bizarre after this, and strange paranoid and excitable thoughts fill my head for hours afterwards.

This is a somewhat difficult piece of theatre to analyse.  It really is intense and terrifying, but ultimately it is also entertaining.  The stated aim is to raise awareness of what is happening in Assad's prisons and detention centres, but even though this feels realistic, deep down I know what is actually happening must be infinitely worse and infinitely more psychologically destructive.  It succeeded in making me think that I could empathise with the experiences of those interrogated, but this must necessarily be an illusion.  How could I look someone in the eye who'd actually been through this sort of treatment and tell them that I'd paid £15 and gone to the centre of trendy London to put myself through a simulation of what they'd been forced through?  This was after all, my choice.

But on the other hand the programme does assure us that the events we've been through are based on testimony from former political detainees, and admits that they can only "modestly portray only a small fraction of the dreadfulness and absurdity of what political detainment in Syria really is under the Assad regime."  Putting audiences through this simulation of very real events to raise awareness about what is going on is a noble aim, the more people outraged at the way the Assad regime is treating its citizenry the better.   But, it seems other than awareness that there is almost nothing that we, the audience members can do about this incredibly complicated situation.  It's a worrying feeling of impotence, one which Adam Curtis has summarised as "Oh Dearism".

It is precisely this kind of impotent feeling that makes this piece of theatre somewhat problematic for me.  Is it worth transforming people's very real traumatic experiences of psychological torture into theatre to inform Western audiences?  It feels a little exploitative for me to get an adrenaline fix by dipping my toe into the horrors of contemporary Syria.  Especially since, at times I felt like I was acting out my personal revolutionary fantasies about resisting torture by an authoritarian regime and attempting escape.  While it was exciting at the time, in retrospect it feels somewhat like using what is horrifying reality for people right now to stroke my own ego.

As a piece of theatre it is stunningly effective, convincing and something that'll stay with me for a very long time.  It's a triumph of disturbingly convincing set design and acting so realistically threatening that you feel a genuine sense of malevolence from the actors playing the soldiers, and very real desperation from the prisoners.  Even so, despite all this acting skill and expert staging my reaction to the situation in Syria is still much along the lines of "Oh dear, this is awful", rather than being given any kind of constructive framework to be able to effect any kind of change in Syria.  I've been made aware of what is going on, but is that enough?

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