Syrian writer Liwaa Yazji’s play about the conflict in her country features six live goats. They clop around the set, amiably interacting with their human co-stars, and occasionally attempting to eat the props.
They’re an – intentionally – disruptive presence. The goats have been provided by the regime to the families of the dead soldiers as a form of compensation, a goat for every martyr. They’re a sop, an affront – and a distraction. They also fundamentally alter the landscape of Yazji’s often opaque and disjointed play every time they’re on stage. The goats energise things, while subtly reconfiguring the audience’s relationship with what it’s watching.
Set in a village in Syria, the play opens on the day of a mass funeral for a number of young soldiers. The rituals of mourning are interrupted by Abu Firas (Carlos Chahine) a grief-stricken teacher, father of one of dead, demanding the coffins be opened so he can ascertain who is inside. There are television cameras present. Abu Firas disrupts the tidy, regime-approved narrative of martyrdom.
There’s a lot going on in Yazji’s play. Too much. A group of teenage boys play video games and smoke joints, with the knowledge that they too may soon be bodies in boxes hanging over them like a shadow. In the play’s most emotionally charged scene, another young soldier returns home to his pregnant wife and mother. Full of anger, he lashes out at them violently, his rage fuelled in part by his wife’s unquestioning belief in the official line about honour and sacrifice.
This is a play all about control of the stories that get told in times of conflict, in the form of propaganda, in the media, and in the mouths of teachers. The television host in her blonde wig urges the mothers of dead men to stay on script (she has an actual script for them to read). The enemy are all “terrorists.” Truth is missing in action.
Director Hamish Pirie peppers the garishly lit set with TV monitors, refrigerators and plastic garden chairs. But he struggles to knit the many strands of the play together and his production is often oddly inert for something with such an emotive subject.
That is until we hear the rumble of hooves and the stage is filled with goats. The production is upended as they bounce and bleat and munch, while displaying their distinct goat personalities – one is tranquil and composed, another fidgety and excitable; one a total scene-stealer.
The actors spend a lot of time petting, cuddling and reassuring the goats. It’s a tender thing to behold, the only ‘true’ thing on stage.
Goats has the potential to be a fascinating and illuminating piece but too often it’s clunky and confusing. The human performances are also fitful. The goats are a potent metaphor though, an adorable disruptive force.