LONDON—The lights stay low throughout the play, X-Adra, creating the sense of a cell-like space on stage. Halfway through, the actors, all former inmates of Adra prison in Syria, start scribbling frantically on the floor, sending clouds of chalk dust up into the air.
For the audience, the performance is uncomfortable to watch. The actors say re-living their incarceration on stage is “exhausting” and “difficult.” But the performers believe it’s their duty to remind the world of the hundreds of thousands who have perished inside Syria’s prisons and untold numbers still languishing behind bars. “It can be quite cathartic but at the same time it’s hard to go back,” says Kenda Zaour, who was imprisoned for two months in 2012.
The U.K. premier of the play last week, following a performance in France, was part of the program at Shubbak Festival, a biennial showcase of contemporary Arab culture in London. Hend, Ali (formerly Ola), Mariam, Rowaida, Kenda and Hend Mugale recount their time in the Adra prison near Damascus from the 1980s to the Syrian revolution.
Their tales are framed by the haunting voice of singer Hala Omran, who wanders barefoot between speakers on the sparsely furnished stage. At Battersea Arts Centre, where X-Adra was performed, audiences are free come and go and make noise, as they wish. But during the performance, the audience stayed stock still and silent as they listened to stories of systematic torture, agonizing uncertainty, lost family members and hellish conditions.
Roweida Kanaan was a journalist, accused of working for an opposition TV channel. Bound and blindfolded on the day of her arrest, she recalls looking down and seeing her best friend Khaled’s feet through a chink in the fabric. In prison, she would search for his face among the corpses of people killed under torture. She never saw it, but learned later that he was dead.
Violence is kept to a minimum in this production, so the focus stays on the women and their stories. “I was amazed by the incredible presence and participation of the Syrian women in the revolution,” director Ramzi Choukair said. He wanted to spotlight individual testimonies, “but also to say that what happened to them can happen to anyone anywhere in the world.”
One by one, the women recount the circumstances of their arrest. Zaour, who had recently graduated from the Institute of Tourism, wanted to protest peacefully against the incarceration of civil prisoners. Wearing wedding dresses, she and three friends headed to a busy market in central Damascus and waved banners proclaiming their love for Syria. “That was the moment that broke the fear inside me forever,” she says. Minutes later security services arrested them.