One Night Only: Syria in Revolt, on a Beirut Stage
Nanda Mohammad played Noura in “Could You Please Look Into the Camera,” which was staged last month at the Sunflower Theater in Beirut, Lebanon.
There was only one performance of Mohammad al-Attar’s play in Beirut, and some playgoers came from Damascus, Syria.
The fear endures, but the type that kept Syrians cowed into silence for decades has morphed into something different, he said over a beer in a Beirut cafe. “Fear is a human instinct, but the fear is no longer preventing people from doing things,” he said.
That is one theme he explores in his play about the uprising, “Could You Please Look Into the Camera,” which was staged last month at the Sunflower Theater in Beirut.
It was a remarkable event for several reasons: There was only one performance. It aired its accusations of torture and other abuse by President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Beirut, where a small clandestine community of Syrian activists lives in dread of the long arm of his secret police. A chunk of the audience came from Damascus.
Many playgoers emerged electrified by the experience of seeing the uprising examined publicly in a work of art. “It was cathartic because it was no longer kept inside everybody, or a whispered conversation,” said one woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was going back to Damascus. “I could imagine other people were having the same conversation, but I had no real idea — everyone is keeping their circles tighter because everyone is afraid.”
The Syrian government has struggled to give the impression that life in Damascus remains serenely unaffected by the upheaval throughout much of the country. “You turn on state TV and it just talks about the issue of Palestine constantly, or that normalcy is being undermined by outside actors,” the woman said. “We are all bit players in the government’s facade.”
The play focuses on the lives of four young Damascenes. Noura, a divorced woman whose well-to-do family has long flourished because of its government connections, decides that her part in the uprising will be filming the testimony of tortured activists. Her brother, Ghassan, a prosperous lawyer like their father, considers the project madness. Zeid and Farah are the two activists participating in her film.
The play’s director, Omar Abusaada, staged a complicated piece that included video testimonials from other activist characters. They were projected onto the walls of the set, with an empty former law office on one side and a small jail cell on the other.
Mr. Attar, a handsome, unshaven 31-year-old with a black ponytail, said the play started as verbatim testimonials drawn from about 10 people who had been jailed. “I was listening to their stories, and I was obsessed by them,” he said.
But as a Damascus native with a theater degree from England, he let his instincts to produce a drama rather than a documentary take over. He created the conflict between the two siblings as Noura edges away from her family, a difficult step in the Arab world, to find a role in the opposition.
“No more fooling around anymore; the whole country is sitting on a boiling volcano,” Ghassan barks at Noura at one point. “Believe me, if they learn about this project it won’t go away peacefully. Neither me nor Father can do anything then.”
Noura shoots back a little later in the argument: “This is what we’ve always been good at all our lives. As long as our business is doing well, nothing should bother us, not even for a moment. Nothing can affect our lives.”
Ghassan warns that the events have gone beyond that. “I’m talking about issues bigger than me, you and the family,” he says.
Long stretches of the play still resemble a documentary. Among the most stomach-churning parts come when Zeid and Farah describe what happened to them in jail, although there are injections of humor.
Social media have played an enormous role in the uprising, so Zeid’s torturers want his Facebook password. He jokes that he would have happily given it up for a cup of coffee, but even after he tells it to them, his jailers rough him up repeatedly because it is a complicated English word that they cannot type correctly.
Farah was arrested when government supporters told the security police she was distributing antigovernment pamphlets in their neighborhood. She is Christian, a choice for the character Mr. Attar made to underscore that not all minorities support Mr. Assad. “I am already thinking that everyone should see who I am; some people are still dormant, and maybe they’ll wake up,” Farah says in deciding to be interviewed. “Show my face.”
When the inevitable happens to Noura as well, she frets about what silly remarks others might be writing about her on Facebook. In reality, when activists are arrested, their friends put up a “freedom page” for each on Facebook.
Nanda Mohammad, the actress who played Noura, laughed in a telephone interview about how some comments had been repeated to the point of parody, like “They stole our light” and “Will you ever see our smiles again?”
Ms. Mohammad thought moments like that were the play’s strength. “It seems like it is simple and not deep enough, but a couple hours after you hear the line, you are deeply touched,” she said from Cairo.
Not everyone agreed.
Maher Esper, 32, who was released from prison in Syria last year after serving five and a half years of a seven-year sentence for setting up a Web site critical of Mr. Assad, said he thought the play focused too much on issues like torture — an old story after 50 years of dictatorship — rather than the profound changes Syria is experiencing.
“It focused so much on pain and suffering,” he said after the performance. “I have yet to see any work of art that reflects what is really happening in Syria. This was a good attempt, but it was not profound enough. Maybe we are asking too much of art.”
The hurdles involved in creating uprising art are part of the problem. The director and all but one actor live in Damascus, where they rehearsed for six weeks. They decided that doing it in secret would be more dangerous than hiding in plain sight, so they met at a theater and kept the script to themselves. (The play has also been performed in English on the festival circuit, in Edinburgh and Seoul, South Korea.)
The rehearsals in Damascus were “difficult and strange,” Ms. Mohammad said, but the director and the actors all decided it was worth the risk because the play distilled what they were thinking and feeling.
“We must talk about these issues and deal with it — most families have different points of view,” Ms. Mohammad said. “We will all have to live together after the regime falls, and we need a basis for our next life together.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: June 17, 2012
An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of the actress who played Noura. She is Nanda Mohammad, not Mohammed. The error was repeated in a picture caption.
A version of this article appeared in print on June 17, 2012, on page A12 of the New York edition with the headline: One Night Only: Syria in Revolt, on a Beirut Stage.