Long road to South Korean stage for Syrian drama

Reuters, Sunday 13 May 2012

A woman who was imprisoned in a Syrian jail buries her head in her arms, haunted by the faces of the people who betrayed her to the government. A man uses a mirror to look at the scars from torture on his body.

The wrenching new drama enacted by a Syrian troupe, given fresh urgency by the recent months of fighting and arrests in their nation, would not have come to the stage at all if not for two people at a theatre in Seoul.

The unusual collaboration, made more difficult by the fact that South Korea and Syria do not have diplomatic relations, began last year when artistic director Kang Seok Ran and producer Kim Yo Ahen were searching for a final production in a series about marginalized people they were planning.

"We were looking for a play that could show people standing at the edge of the cliff, while dealing with current issues," said Kim.

Through theatre connections, they met young Syrian director Omar Abu Saada, who was then trying to pull together a short play on how young people in the Middle East were using social media to let the world know about their situation during the tumultuous days of the "Arab Spring" and after.

"Saada was trying to talk about the young generation of the Middle East struggling and participating in the ongoing revolution, so we knew he was our guy," Kim added.

The result was "Can You Please Look at the Camera?" in which Nora, an amateur movie director, secretly tries to film testimonies from victims of unjust imprisonment, picked up by the police for "crimes" such as handing out flyers to uploading something on Facebook.

The actors' lines - all based on real stories - are intercut with taped interviews with actual detainees, projected on a screen at the centre of the stage. At emotional moments, the actors begin smoking cigarettes whose pungent aroma increases the tension in the theatre.

"Despite such sacrifice, it is amazing to see so many Syrians taking part in the revolution in order to achieve freedom, democracy and social justice, and to fulfill their dreams," Saada said.

Bringing the play to the stage was also far from easy.

The actors had to practice behind closed doors in Syria, and had to acquire their visas through a roundabout route, since South Korea and Syria do not have diplomatic relations. The play itself was not completed until shortly before its run began.

To add to the complications, North Korea has longstanding ties to Damascus. It has reportedly been involved with Syria's secret nuclear reactor, destroyed by Israel in 2007, and tried to export ampules of reagents for chemical weapons to Syria in 2009, in violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution.

Kim and Kang remained undaunted, however, saying that "the role of the contemporary theatre company is to introduce such difficult issues on the stage."

Earlier dramas in this year's series included "Sister Mokran," about refugees from North Korea living in the South. Another dealt with people of Korean descent who live in Japan.

"The plays from this series were eventually about people. We didn't try to say 'let's unite the two Koreas in a short time' through 'Sister Mokran,' and we aren't saying 'let's democratize Syria right now' through this," Kang said.

"We wanted to show people's lives as they are, and have everyone think about issues together."

The theatre plans to have the Syrian play continue on a broader international stage, with a performance later this month in the Middle East. A run in Europe may also be possible.

Though Korean audiences were shocked by the stories of torture and humiliation, nearly every performance was sold out. Kang believes it may have struck a chord by reminding Koreans of 1980, when massive demonstrations against Korea's then-dictatorship wracked the city of Gwangju.

"The only way to impress our audience and to make them support us, is to be fierce and sincere in what we are doing," Kang said.

"To do so, theatre should be able to move right into the middle of discussions going on within society."

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