Reasons to link these very different plays: they are both born out of the turmoil in the Middle East and each reflects one of the greatest fears of those caught up in the Arab revolutions — abduction by the authorities.
It is, of course, nearly impossible to replicate such an experience, but 66 Days in Damascus, a LIFT (London International Festival of Theatre) production by Beirut-based director Lucien Bourjeily, has given it a good go.
Disbelief became easier to suspend when a hood was put over my head. I and my seven fellow captives — notionally tourists in Damascus — were then put into a vehicle, driven at what felt like great speed, and led, still blindfold, through a maze of underground corridors. With the hoods removed we found ourselves in a windowless room the décor of which consisted of a large Syrian flag and a portrait of Bashar Assad. In front of us stood two men holding pick-axe handles.
It was as we were led into the cells that I got a taste of fear, even though I knew that the naked man covered by a cuts, bruises and a blanket was an actor, as were the two female prisoners who argue over whether it is right or wrong to resist the regime.
This is immersive theatre to the max, with the audience taking part in the drama. So is this what it is like to be detained in Syria? Of course not. Even when you are led into a blood-stained room containing the paraphernalia of torture, you know it is an act. But there are moments in this hour-long production when the body takes over; when the guards bang on the door of your cell, you find you have automatically pressed yourself against the wall with palms flat against the cement, just as they ordered you to stand before they left. You feel a little foolish. But you think of those who have been abducted for real, which is all that Bourjeily’s production could hope to achieve.
Meanwhile, The Prophet, Hassan Abdulrazzak’s offering at the Gate Theatre attempts to make sense of Egypt’s chaotic revolution. Central is Hisham (played by Nitzan Sharron), a Cairo novelist whose book about revolution is on hold due to writer’s block, even though revolution is unfolding around him.
What could be a political thriller is hampered by the love life of Hashim and his neglected wife Layla (Sasha Behar), an engineer forced by her employers to cut the mobile phone signals of the revolutionaries she joins in Tahrir Square.
In his debut production as the Gate’s artistic director, Christopher Haydon struggles to balance the play’s annoying relationship banter and the perceptive political argument. A more explicit confrontation between the country’s Islamic and liberal forces may have made for a more telling play.