Damascus (4 stars)

This article is from 2007.


East beats West

Routines based on the business of translation are a pretty well precedented source of humour in the theatre. What gives a rare quality to David Greig’s new play, which amounts to an entire two-and -a-half hours of this schtick, is the subtlety and dexterity with which the joke is applied, shifting misconstructions of words to concepts and on to human identity itself. Finally, the gag becomes a very serious matter indeed, questioning with profound urgency a long history of colonial intervention in the Middle East.

In it, a Scottish TEFL teacher, Paul (Paul Higgins), hoping to shift the latest version of his English language primer, travels to the eponymous city full of trepidation about what our media glibly defines as a world trouble spot. It is, of course, no such thing, as his encounter with his contact Muna (Nathalie Armin) demonstrates. She’s being pursued by her lecherous old professor and former flame Wasim (Alex Elliot), who these days is a mover and shaker in government circles. As romance begins to spark between Paul and Muna, hotel clerk Zakaria (Khalid Laith) befriends the former, but finds his patronage carries the double edged sword of any relationship between coloniser and colonised. Meanwhile, the shifty transsexual Ukranian Marxist hotel piano player (Dolya Gavanski) represents an oblique Brechtian chorus on this comedy of British manners abroad.

Philip Howard’s production observes Greig’s dense, perspicacious commentary on multinationalism, which here amounts to the simple imposition of Western values on folk who have no need of them, with crispness and clarity. From Jon Beales’ parodic elevator music score, to Anthony Macilwaine’s ingeniously bland hotel foyer set, it all moulds perfectly together. Greig’s realisation of, ultimately, a tragedy of colonialism built by a long history of ignorance is persuasive, and more powerful for the hilarity that has preceded it. Funniest among these scenes is one in which a text book is amended to Syrian sensibilities, ultimately demonstrating as much illiberal intolerance in this culture as we might associate with that of ‘undemocratic’ Syria. There are some grand performances too. In a generally strong cast Higgins is a standout as the baffled Scot abroad, while Khalid Laith’s clerk robbed of identity in his own country and denied it by the West carries off a tragic-comic coup. Put this one on top of your Fringe ‘to do’ list.

Traverse, 228 1404, until 26 Aug (not 13, 20), times vary, £16–£11 (£5).


  • 4 stars

David Greig's sixth collaboration with outgoing Traverse director Philip Howard follows a Scottish salesman round the eponymous city, touching on the British man's fear of the Middle East. 'Part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2007'.

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