Small Projects Istanbul is a non-governmental organisation that helps those displaced by conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa. As Istanbul now hosts 350,000 Syrian refugees, many of SPI’s clients are from that disfigured country.
In ‘The Sky Is Safe’, which played in Portree last week, it is the testimony of seven such exiles, all women, that provides the raw material out of which the play is fashioned. Unfortunately, it is in the crafting of drama from real life where the work ultimately falls short.
A play of two halves, the first is a fairly linear narrative that puts Gordon, a Scottish aircraft engineer, in the path of Amal, a law graduate from Damascus University, now forced to prostitute herself in the shisha-scented cafes of Istanbul. He wants to help her, but when she finds out that he is involved in the manufacture of military aircraft, their cash-based liaison comes to an abrupt end.
Gordon is told: “Go back to Scotland. Watch us on your screens.” Responding, actor/writer Matthew Zajac breaks the fourth wall by telling us that business is booming, and that most of it is being transacted in the Middle East. So ends the first act.
What follows the changeover are verbatim first-hand accounts of hardship and oppression. And it is here that the play-as-artifice collapses into something declamatory and embryonic. The accounts of the seven Syrian women are harrowing, delivered with great pathos and passion by Palestinian-Lebanese actor Dana Hajaj, but they are little more than a series of vignettes. They tell of European extremists who are somehow spirited into Raqqa to fight for ISIS; of suspicion and paranoia and summary justice. Some Turks welcome their guests; some are hostile. Death can come from anywhere, from a passing car or an open window, and it can strike in the blink of an eye. All of this, as delivered by Hajaj, has undeniable power.
But nailing lived experience in such a direct way is too on-the-nose, though what the women reveal is truly disturbing, and their stories need to be told. In Syria, they were lawyers, hairdressers, cooks, teachers. In Istanbul they are shadows, existing in the margins.
I got all that like a kick in the stomach. But to dramatise is to transfigure – to show, not tell.
Powerful, political theatre is a challenge to injustice, and ‘The Sky Is Safe’ is both powerful and political. However, laying bare the tortured soul of a nation, using personal accounts of suffering as the sole means of doing so, risks descending into pedagogy. Some kind of narrative structure, or sense of character development, needs to articulate the message. As the second half of the play demonstrates, to tell is not enough. Which is a shame, because ‘The Sky Is Safe’ is a brave and unflinching attempt to expose the connected nature of modern warfare. Indeed, the programme notes insist that we are all complicit in these conflicts.
The germ of Zajac’s creation was an encounter in Taksim Square with someone whom he describes as a “street hustler”. He was then introduced to Small Projects Istanbul, who arranged the interviews with the seven Syrian women. The bravery of ‘The Sky Is Safe’ extends from the cast to the director, Ben Harrison, who previously worked on the National Theatre of Scotland’s’ ‘Bint Jbeil’, named after the Lebanese town flattened by Israeli jets and artillery in 2006. While working on this play Harrison discovered that US firm Raytheon Systems, based in Fife, supplied the guidance technology for the weapons that were used in the onslaught. For both writer and director, this was the genesis of Gordon the lonely aircraft engineer.
On the front cover of the programme for ‘The Sky Is Safe’ is the sketch of a young Middle Eastern woman, standing underneath a shower of what I initially took to be feathers. But in the text there is a reference to an exiled woman and her vanished husband walking under a shower of jasmine flowers, so I guess this is what appears on the cover, not feathers. Either way, something gentle and natural is falling from the sky, rather than manmade death. More of this lyricism would have infused the play with the transformative heft it deserves.