Queens of the New Age: A Theatrical Revolution of Womanhood Unsilenced

Undergraduate student Andrew Cassidy reviews CAHA’s screening of the documentary ‘Queens of Syria’ and the accompanying Q&A session.

Hear her out, let her not die without this - Hecuba, The Trojan Women.

Queens of Syria, a project that, since its conception in the autumn of 2013, continues to climb the ladder of notoriety in what it accomplishes. Screening the documentary around the production at the University of Birmingham on Wednesday 17 January 2018, we were able to witness the struggles, strife, and solidarity of such an ambitious project, including an insightful question and answer session with Executive Producers Charlotte Eagar and William Stirling and original cast-member Reem Al Sayyah. Using the tragedy The Trojan Women from ancient playwright Euripides in 415 BC, a group of refugee women from Syria bridge the gap between Ancient Greece and modern day Syria, and are given a voice in a world keen to silence them.

Gilbert Murray, renowned Classical scholar, once wrote of Euripides’ The Trojan Women that:

“[T]he imagination of a great poet alone can finally show to the imagination of the world that even the glories of war are an empty delusion. Euripides shows us, as the centre of his drama, women battered and broken by inconceivable torture…”

That is the empowering appeal of Queens of Syria. From the offset, the focus remains solely on the women as victims of a heinous war and the lives they are forced to rebuild. The delusions of war, of the glories and often celebrated destabilisation of countries during wartime, offer little consolation to the devastation it causes on innocent, everyday lives. After the documentary, Reem Al Sayyah, who starred as one of the fifty refugee women in the production, professed that much of the production’s backlash came from a sense of bewilderment and disappointment from headlines here in the UK that they should have been more anti-regime in their voices. This criticism, however, misses the point entirely. To impose a voice on this production reduces these women to puppets of a propaganda machine, relinquishing their own control over their stories and experiences. The reason for the power of influence behind Queens of Syria is the incredible sense of loss in these women’s lives: whether that be husbands, brothers, sons, or livelihoods. Their stories are personal and lack a political flare, and it is for that reason that the play, and its following documentary, has been so successful — individual voices, bred from individual circumstances, professing their individual pain.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the documentary was a moment of workshopping in rehearsal. In this workshop, the women were asked to map where they had started before the war, and where they were now, pinpointing what they had lost in terms of loved ones and possessions on the way. What became clear was the extent to which Euripides provided a voice to the voiceless. Exiled to Jordan, these women had lost their homes, their loved ones, and their sense of direction, drawing a parallel with the Trojan women of the play. Many women indeed admitting that “[w]e are not acting Troy, Troy is acting us”.

Coming away from the documentary, it became clear just how toxic the allure of detachment is. Safe in our Western bubble, we may read and hear about the Syrian crisis in the news, yet seldom consider the true aftermath of it. Regimes may topple, societies may change, revolutions may rise and fall, but ultimately it is the lives of the everyday man, woman, and child that characterises a war. Despite losing everything in their exile, Reem Al Sayyah made the point that The Trojan Women acted as a form of therapy for these women. It was relatable and gave a sense of belonging and solidarity to a group of women united by loss. The documentary informs an approach to war for the future, and serves as a stark reminder that wars are fought and feared in the home, not across the podium of politics.

The Trojan Women serves as a bittersweet reminder for the Syrian refugees that their voices cannot be silenced. History, whether today, or 2,500 in the form of an ancient tragedy, can and will hear them.

“We want the world to hear the struggles of the Syrian people…”

                                                                                                  Queens of Syria