One phrase, use repeatedly by the interviewees in this verbatim show, holds within it so much meaning: “going to Syria”. Until recently, that simply meant going on holiday. Today it is a fierce and incomprehensible political declaration.
Writer Gillian Slovo interviewed many people over several years for this production. It confronts both the intellectual and emotional backgrounds to the rise of Islamic State. Human stories – mothers in a Belgian community centre who’ve lost their children – are set against the arguments of ‘experts’ in radicalisation, who haven’t made the decision to go to Syria, but think they understand the people who have.
There are three black chairs, a cluster of screens showing news footage of Paris, of drone strikes, and live-streaming the performers’ faces like interviewees on Newsnight. Bright white lights shine on their faces. The monochrome simplicity is at odds with the completely not-black-and-white issue the play attempts to confront.
Nicolas Kent’s still, sparse staging is very effective, but completely undermined by segments of sixth former interviewees introduced by a loud school bell, the kids bouncing on stage to show that they’re young. It’s sorely misjudged, infantilising despite the insight of the students’ comments, and mismatched with the stripped back clarity of the rest of the show.
There’s honesty and earnestness (and occasional falseness) in the performances, but the three Belgian mothers – Nathalie Armin, Penny Layden and Sirine Saba – are particularly moving as they interweave the stories of their lost children.
It sweeps and searches for answers to impossible questions, trying to elucidate the many nuances of an immensely complex subject. All in the service of a simple question, asked by one of the mothers as she recalls with painful tears her son’s story: “He found happiness in a country at war. Why?”