Dogstar Theatre Company: The Sky Is Safe
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by Margaret Chrystall
IT’S maybe too easy for us in the West to keep the horror and confusion of the situation in Syria at arms-length when it’s distant news from a faraway land.
If that’s you, then Dogstar Theatre Company’s play The Sky Is Safe is a must-see.
It’s impossible to watch the fast-paced two-hander with actors Matthew Zajac and Dana Hajaj and not be jump-started emotionally by the heart-breaking human stories that are usually left to lurk unheard beneath the politics of war.
And it’s the voices of the Syrian women refugees – their testimonies from interviews Matthew Zajac conducted with real refugees in Istanbul – woven through the play from start to finish that stay with you long after the play is over.
Running parallel is the unfolding relationship between Scottish businessman Gordon and prostitute Amal who meet in Istanbul where the play is set and where up to 400,000 Syrian refugees now live.
What starts as a purely commercial exchange – lonely traveller gets physical comfort for money – quickly starts evolving into something more complicated. Anonymous intimacy is almost immediately not enough, but the truth about their real lives will prove a challenge too far. And it exposes the convenient excuses of the West about its role in this war.
Gordon says: “I’m just a man with a job and a family to support ... You’re the victims of a terrible war.”
Amal says: “Go back to Scotland, watch us on your screens.”
The staging of the play, set in a confined high-walled box with a screen useful for scene-setting – showing film of street life in Istanbul, animations of Nihad Al Turk's stunning artwork or offering handy translations or the names of the individual women – works well.
Quick-change scenes are often represented simply by chairs and a table moved around mainly by Matthew Zajac, though it can be distracting. Lighting by John Wilkie and music and sound by Pippa Murphy carry a lot of the weight of taking us where we need to be, from a war-zone to the place of safety expressed in the moving song near the end of the play.
But the burning core of The Sky Is Safe is the performances of the actors – both have many characters to play but effortlessly move between those.
As Gordon, Matthew Zajac portrays a sympathetic everyman who must subtly evolve into something seedier if we are to get the moral sleight of hand he has created as writer of the play.
Dana Hajaj magnificently rises to the challenge of playing the savvy, university-educated Amal along with the many female Syrian refugees whose voices power the production. Her voice is sometimes harsh and full of angst, sometimes gentle and reflective – along with subtle body language that offers understated clues to the different identities. So Marwa, burnt when a bomb hit her house, always clutches the top of her arm as if to comfort herself.
If there’s a flaw in the play, it’s possibly that we don’t see more of Gordon and Amal, though the often undertold stories of women affected by war - wars we are told that are usually made by men - are weighty and powerful enough to balance that. Also, these women's stories include the almost universally horrific and tragic fates of their men too.
So why go and see this play?
As with most of Dogstar’s earlier work, this is a play about us and the rest of the world. It’s about now and what led here, about connecting with our own emotions and sense of what’s right and wrong – and being entertained and challenged by cutting-edge theatre brought to us by talented theatre-makers making it happen on a stage in front of our eyes.
The Sky Is Safe is on at Reay Village Hall on Thursday, September 21; Pulteney Peoples Project, Wick, on Friday, September 22; Durness Village Hall on Saturday, September 23.