BORDERS at the Koninklijke Schouwburg – Paradijs in The Hague

You will rarely get a group of people to agree on the function of theatre. Is it art, is it entertainment or can it be both? The truth is that the theatre has many hats, none of which preclude any of the others.

Theatre as art, like any other form of art, should, above all, enlighten us. It should have a viewpoint and be able to express it. It has the opportunity and means to explore and comment on the human condition, to make statements and be responsible.

And that is, essentially, what Henry Naylor’s play is about – responsibility. It explores how individuals react to situations in which they find themselves and what governs and influences their decisions.

First, we meet Sebastien a young, keen and conscientious photo-journalist travelling the world, looking to take pictures that will make a difference. He wants to change the world with his camera. He believes he has a responsibility, a moral duty. In the first episode he describes trying to save a fleeing refugee only to see his attempt fail and the man die. His duty has been to save the man, not to photograph his plight. This is the modern-day dilemma of any cameraman or photographer in a war zone or disaster area – should they take the picture to inform the world or should they lay down their camera and help a person in need?

On a bare stage, save for two high stools, we also meet a young Syrian girl with ambitions to become an artist. The brutal punishment of a group of children for writing slogans on walls and the death of her father at the hands of Assad regime persuade the girl that her responsibility is to protest against the cruel tyrant. She takes up her paints and aerosols and, in constant danger, roams the darkened streets to protests in the best way she can.

The play takes the form of alternating monologues with no contact between the two characters. As the girl’s situation becomes more precarious, Sebastian has become a bit of a celebrity and a wealthy man after fortuitously taking exclusive photos of Osama Bin Laden just before 9/11. The attraction of fame, fortune and money are too strong. He gives up his ambitions, and what he saw as his responsibilities to become a world-changing photo-journalist, in favour of becoming photographer to the stars. When publicly castigated by his former mentor for selling out and doing nothing to help humanity Sebastian replies defensively, “My pictures of the Spice Girls are not nothing.”

Back in Syria, the girl finds she is pregnant and, persuaded by her new, overriding responsibility to the unborn child, decides to pay people smugglers to get her out of the country. Meanwhile, Sebastian has decided to put his photo-journalist hat back on and do a piece on the refugee crisis – but only because it means accompanying Angelina Jolie on one of her humanitarian jaunts. Will the paths of Sebastian and the Syrian girl finally cross in the inhospitable Mediterranean . . . ?

This was faultless theatre presented by STET The English Theatre. It is often believed that a play dealing with an important subject becomes, by default, an important play. Not necessarily so. But Borders is an important play. It has all the pre-requisites and succeeds on all levels. First and foremost it is good theatre – the writing is immaculate and totally engages the audience, the simple presentation is effective and, above all, we witnessed virtuoso performances from the two young actors. Graham O’Mara as the once conscientious and responsible photographer, and numerous other characters, never put a foot wrong and Deniz Arixenas’ heartrending performance as the Syrian girl was totally believable. Borders is a production of which everyone involved should be proud.

The production is accompanied by a small exhibition Meet the Syrians in the lobby of Het Paradijs by a group of Syrian artists.

Michael Hasted   16th November 2018