AMMAN: Six Syrian actors with stories to tell are huddled in a small vessel headed for Europe on a “Love Boat” journey to escape the conflict that has ravaged their homeland. The vessel, a prop mounted on a stage in the Jordanian capital, is the centerpiece of a one-act tragi-comic play intended to celebrate life and break what its director calls the “three biggest taboos in Arab society: religion, sex and politics.”
The play draws on two tragic backstories. One is Syria’s five-year conflict, which has killed more than 270,000 people, maimed many and forced millions to flee their homes.
The second is their flight. More than 110,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean to Greece and Italy so far this year, and 413 have drowned trying. Last year, 3,770 people died trying to reach Europe.
With their theater company back home decimated, the surviving actors of this troupe have reunited, determined to restart their lives.
Some of the actors have drawn on their personal experiences in writing the script and all the characters bear the actors’ names.
One of two female performers, Iman lost her right leg due to shrapnel wounds. She plays a teenager from Deraa who had a leg amputated after being hit by shrapnel.
In a gesture of homage to the many Syrian women who endured the nightmare of detention, 25-year-old Haya created a character who spent 227 days in regime jails, where she was raped daily.
Mohammad plays a fictional singer who lost a hand in the war. Adnan’s character was jailed for taking part in anti-regime protests, as was the actor in real life.
Mahmoud plays a man trapped in Damascus’ besieged Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk – from which Mahmoud fled to Jordan.
The texts are carefully chosen to mirror life in Syria today – with its slew of gunmen, including Daesh, as well as the taboos of Arab society.
“With this play I wanted to pay tribute to those who have died at sea,” said the director Nawar Bulbul at the Amman premiere, “those forced to flee their country because of the war and the destruction.
“These people boarded makeshift boats to undertake a perilous voyage because of their love of life.”
Last year, Bulbul directed Syrian refugee children in an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” The year before he produced “King Lear,” with child actors from Jordan’s Zaatari camp.
In “Love Boat” the actors flee across the Mediterranean – first to Greece, then Italy, Spain, France, Britain and Germany. They carry only a map of Europe, a telescope and hopes one of these countries will take them in.
To augment the play’s autobiographical content, he borrows from past masters of European theater. As each country appears on the horizon, the actors perform a scene from plays by Aristophanes, Goldoni, Cervantes, Moliere and Shakespeare.
Off the Greek coast, the actors exchange lines from Aristophanes’ “The Knight,” a satire on social and political life. As they near Italy, they recite from Carlo Goldoni’s “Servant of Two Masters.”
Spain is reserved for Cervantes’ “Don Quixote,” who set out on adventures to defend the helpless and fight evil aided by his servant Sancho Panza. Here Bulbul revisits a scene in which the Don encounters a group of prisoners and asks Sancho Panza why these “wretched people” are shackled. “Because I am in love,” one actor shouts. “Because I listen to music,” says another, apparently referring to Daesh prohibitions.
As the boat reaches the French coast, the actors deliver lines from Moliere’s “Tartuffe” (“The Impostor”), the story of a self-styled holy man who uses religion to sate his sexual desires. Here, an actor swiftly dons a beard and flowing robe, evoking the likeness of Daesh warlord Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The sea journey ends in tragedy, Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” as the raging storm sinks the boat, taking Syria’s refugees to the depths.