An intimate remembrance, Aleppo: A Portrait of Absence centres the human cost of war, says Ben Brooker
Having long-since disappeared from most Western news cycles, the interminable civil war in Syria – nearly a decade old now, and with no end in sight – challenges our ability to muster an informed and moral response. It doesn’t help that the numbers, even when we are given them, are difficult to comprehend in their size and inexactness (estimates of deaths vary between 384,000 and about 586,100).
Compounding this, the conflict’s belligerents are a complex and ever-evolving brew of domestic and foreign actors, virtually every one of which has been accused of human rights abuses and massacres. Well might we wonder, after the American journalist Charles J. Rolo, “how to encompass the emotional reality of that aggregate of horrors which so easily becomes ‘a statistic’ or a remote abstraction – ‘war dead’, ‘purge’, ‘pogrom’?”
The Syrian playwright-director team of Mohammad Al Attar and Omar Abussada offer one way in Aleppo: A Portrait of Absence, a verbatim, one-on-one theatre work for 10 audience members at a time. Casting into relief the intimate and sharply individualised experience that is to come, audience members begin by assembling in the semi-darkness of the cavernous, draughty entrance hall of the Queen’s Theatre. We nervously cluster around a huge, vertically suspended wooden map (beautifully designed by Alia Ramadan) of what is presumably the city of the work’s title. Arabic place names and the map’s labyrinthine network of streets, parks, and squares produce in me a feeling of bewilderment and distance.
‘The work is an act of remembrance, a kind of anamnesis I think to myself, recuperating former Aleppo residents’ stories – each one profoundly connected to place – before they are lost to time’
As I lean in, I notice there are 10 raised, puzzle piece-like sections, each one marked with a black dot, the pieces in totality forming a rough circle. There’s no other discernible pattern to their arrangement; they seem to denote random places. We’re invited by an usher to take a piece each – one that “speaks to us”, although the irrational fear of missing out drives most audience members to rush and grab without much apparent thought. I desultorily slide out the last remaining piece, turn it over to find the number “7” inscribed on the back, and head as directed to another part of the space.
There, on a table covered in black cloth, is a row of dictaphones. We’re instructed by the usher behind the table to take one each and are then led into the theatre’s main space, which, save for a couple of glowing exit signs and the odd pool of low light, is almost entirely dark. In the space, we’re told, are 10 tables, their tops customised with unique maps, each containing a cut-out section – those titular absences, perhaps – that correspond to one of our “puzzle” pieces. After some vaguely embarrassed manoeuvring, we mange to slot our pieces into their correct tables, and sit down. In the gloom, a voiceover begins. Distractingly, I recognise the voice (local actor Nathan O’Keefe) but begin to focus on the words, their import clear: the work is an act of remembrance, a kind of anamnesis I think to myself, recuperating former Aleppo residents’ stories – each one profoundly connected to place – before they are lost to time.
As the voiceover ends, we’re asked to hand our dictaphones to the actors who have taken their places opposite us. Tabletop lamps come up across the space and we “meet” our actors for the first time. The sudden intimacy with a (in my case, relative) stranger is jolting – mine is Rashidi Edward, whom I know a little bit, and – I notice later – is the only non-white performer. As Edward takes my dictaphone, he hits play and a voice begins speaking in another language (in the din of the other voices in the space, I can’t tell if it’s Arabic, Kurdish or Turkish).
Edward begins to “translate”, eventually switching off the recorder as he takes over entirely. The speaker, a former resident of an Aleppo neighbourhood, the name of which I don’t quite catch, had been a shoemaker and father. The locus of his memories is unglamorous but socially significant – the pavement, shaded with umbrella trees, is where, before the war, friends and family would gather at the end of a long day to gossip and unwind. In Edward’s gentle but skilfully modulated tones, a moving story is revealed: of a community’s physical and spiritual dissolution in a time of war and polarisation, and of the shoemaker’s dislocation and, ultimate flight from the increasingly dangerous city as a refugee. His own father dead, he doesn’t want his son “to grow up as an orphan in Aleppo”.
When the monologue ends, Edward invites me to record a story of my “favourite place”. I’m tired – it’s the Adelaide Festival’s final weekend, and I’ve seen a lot of shows – and can’t think of anywhere. Eventually, lingering visions of Aleppo’s destruction lead me to describe somewhere generic – green, abundant, with water flowing through the centre of it – and I leave the space, depositing the dictaphone back on the table. I learn later that these recordings are not listened to by the work’s makers but are sent to the interviewees who contributed their stories.
‘Underneath the work’s naivety there are some guts: verbatim’s usual, persuasive-in-the-moment claim to authenticity, which here effectively centres the human cost of war’
I hang around for a few moments, thinking there must be another part to the work; only 25 minutes has passed since we entered the theatre (10 minutes less than the advertised duration), and I feel… like I need something else to happen. Instead, I’m just handed a program by an usher who bids me a good night.
My feeling persists as I walk back to the car. Underneath the work’s naivety there are some guts: verbatim’s usual, persuasive-in-the-moment claim to authenticity, which here effectively centres the human cost of war. There’s also, despite the slightly ungraceful interplay of Abusaada’s direction and Bissane Al Charif’s design, a satisfying sense of immersion, the audience’s journey something like an embodied version of the Google Earth zoom.
And yet, like those zooms, the experience of Aleppo winds up a thin one, telling us less than it might appear at first glance. While I’m sometimes impatient with the habitual demand for a “take away” or “call to action”, without either – or, indeed, any kind of expository framework – the work feels ungrounded, over-reliant on audience members to make deep connections with their actors (mine was good, but I wasn’t able to shut out the other voices sufficiently to become emotionally invested in his story). I left wondering why the work wasn’t a sound installation with headphones, or, as it wasn’t, why nothing was done to foster audience members’ connection to each other, or what it meant for these words to be delegated to (mostly) white actors – something the makers did not seem to have considered.
Writing on precariousness and our (in)ability to grieve certain lives, Judith Butler observed:
We read about lives lost and are often given the numbers, but these stories are repeated every day, and the repetition appears endless, irremediable. And so, we have to ask, what would it take not only to apprehend the precarious character of lives lost in war, but to have that apprehension coincide with an ethical and political opposition to the losses war entails?
The world is awash with narrowly experiential representations of conflict, from Dunkirk and 1917, to Journey’s End and the increasingly Disneyland-like Australian War Memorial. At their best, such accounts produce a sort of phenomenology of war that transcends nostalgic “stories from the trenches”, shocking us out of our indifference. But without a politics, they also risk amounting to little more than what Susan Sontag called, referring to photographs of “the slaughter-bench of history”, “demoralising emotional blow[s]”. This, too, is an absence, and one that, for me, haunted Aleppo.
Aleppo: A Portrait of Absence, produced by Haus der Kulturen der Welt – Berlin (HKW). Züricher Theater Spektakel. Production manager Meret Kiderlen, interviews bu Sadik Abdul Rahman, Marcell Shehwaro, Odai Al Zoubi, map design by Alia Ramadan, translations by Katharine Halls, Reem Harb, Lina Mounzer. Performed by Chris Asimos, Jonathan Darby, Rashidi Edward, Nic English, Jamila Main, Melanie Munt, Nathan O’Keefe, Adam Ovadia, Mark Saturno, Rory Walker. At Queens Theatre as part of the Adelaide Festival. Closed.