Spring Reign

War is fed to us through media that commoditises suffering.  We see the consequences but often the place looks like a film set and the bodies are anonymous, two dimensional.  We cannot imagine how people feel to be displaced and to endure day after day of fear and suffering. The horror of war is best shown through small personal stories; the ordinary citizen braving sniper fire on a bridge in Sarajevo in 1992 to get bread every morning; personal letters from the trenches in 1916.  Spring Reign at the Lowry is a play about Aleppo in Syria.  Using a clever combination of traditional storytelling, an examination of one family’s life and photo and video footage, the hidden world of Aleppo is brought to life.

The success of director Ben Power’s play rests on the company’s ability to make us empathise with the human element, to bring images and news stories to life.  ‘Personal stories were collected from Syrian refugees, aid workers, activists, journalists and photographers, many having escaped the brutality of the war, but all with family and friends either missing, dead, displaced, or trapped by the violence and chaos that has descended on Syria’.  We see into the daily life of Salah and Aisha, a couple who dream of a life without the tyranny of Bashar al-Assad.  It is their normality that is striking, but the Syria they hoped to change is gone; in its place violence, destruction and the unflinching brutality of war.  ‘We fight by staying in Aleppo. We resist Bashar by staying in Aleppo and not dying’.

The two acts are bookended by traditional tales, which work fairly well.  Certainly they evoke an eight thousand year old history, and the richness of tradition, family life and intellectual thought.  On the other hand it’s tricky to make direct links between the morals of at least one of the tales and the themes of the overall play.  Throughout, a very real sense of place and setting is created by live musician Chris Davies.

Salah and Aisha provide shelter to two westerners.  Photographer Mark provides a strong balance as to how we see war from both behind and in front of the lens.  He is not only a fascinating character but also a very effective dramatical device to introduce photographs of Aleppo; photographs of shattered normal lives as opposed to the shocking images, especially of children, we sometimes see.  A verbatim story from Aisha of two soldiers taking a bet over a child’s future is heartbreaking, as is footage of a rocket attack.  Media is sensitively and intelligently used.

I do however have serious concerns over the second Western character, Claire, whose Syrian Manchester-United-supporting fiancé has gone missing.  In what is an otherwise superbly written play by Rob Johnston, Claire’s dialogue is poor, and serves more to advance the plot than to create character.  She seems to represent our Western conscience, and there are far more innovative ways of achieving this.

Our emotions in this play rest with the way that people who call Aleppo home are suffering.  It is the fear that Aisha won’t come home.  It is the fear of a rocket attack in a bread queue.  It is the witnessing of atrocities.  It is the concept that you will fight against what you hate even thought you may not rationalise exactly what you are fighting for (witness the multiple ‘rebel’ groups).  It is the understanding that you don’t leave your home unless you have absolutely no other choice.  Despite some flaws, this is a powerful and timely play.

 

 

 

Theatre lover, amateur director, occasional actor, writer.

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