David Greig’s Damascus carries a fair weight on its shoulders. Selected by many in advance as a highlight of this year’s Edinburgh schedule, most serious theatregoers attending the festival will have this one on their must-see lists.
I suspect many of these will be surprised that, despite the play’s Middle East setting, the political situation in the region forms little more than a backdrop to a tale that centres on individuals, how they form connections and how they treat each other.
Set almost entirely in a hotel lobby and told in flashback scenes introduced by the hotel’s ever-present pianist Elena (played by Doyla Gavanski) we meet Paul (Paul Higgins) as he attempts to pitch his English Language textbooks to the Education ministry.
Greig quickly establishes that the events that follow will lead to a tragic conclusion, and although we are left constantly wondering about the nature of the unfolding tragedy, it doesn’t swamp the rest of the piece to the extent that it becomes akin to an episode of Casualty, in a ‘guess who’s going to die this week’ manner.
Instead, the relationships Paul builds with Muna (a suitably enchanting Nathalie Armin) and hotel receptionist Zakaria (played by Khalid Laith) form the centre of the play and we are invested in them by the end, although had Paul not been married it would have made the character considerably more sympathetic. Indeed, Paul’s transformation on his last evening in Damascus is the element that rings least true throughout the play.
The political elements in the dialogue are fairly limited although they do serve to remind us that Britain isn’t always the ideal we like to believe it to be, and that Arab states aren’t always the fundamentalist regimes they are often portrayed as.
With one exception, there are no long speeches, and you are reminded of the location mostly through generic images of war coverage playing silently in the background on a plasma screen.
There’s a great deal of humour in the show and, for the most part, the tone hits a sweet spot of amusement and mirth, rather than going for cheap laughs – although, perhaps predictably, the Scottish/English comparisons go down particularly well with the Edinburgh audience.
Greig also manages to get a great deal of humour out of a translation set-piece, which on paper would have sounded rather lame. In a large part this is thanks to a strong comic performance from Armin and a convincingly deadpan one by Alex Eliot as her boss Wasim. While not all of the humour appealed to me, such as the jokes based around Paul’s loss of smell, the audience for the most part lapped it up.
Towards the end of the play Greig foregrounds Elena’s eye-witness account, drawing a show-stealing performance from Gavanski in the process. Resembling the conceit used in Greig’s Yellow Moon, this pivotal scene serves to up the pace and tension while still allowing for moments of humour.
Damascus may well disappoint those looking for more in-depth political statements but it’s an entertaining and effectively told tale of individuals, and their hopes and despairs.