Unless you've lived through a war, it would be near impossible to understand the thoughts and feelings of those who have survived one. However, in Samah Sabawi's THEM, the audience is presented with an intimate exploration of five people who are caught in a war zone in the Middle East and the decisions they must make to simply stay alive.
Leila and Omar (Priscilla Doueihy and Abdulrahman Hammoud) are a young married couple with a baby, facing the agonising struggle of either leaving their village to become refugees for potentially the rest of their lives or staying put and seeing what eventuates. Omar's friends, Mohamad and Majid (Reece Vella and Khishraw Jones-Shukoor), each have their own issues to deal with as they plan their own escapes. The arrival of Salma (Claudia Greenstone), Omar's sister, who had made some questionable choices during the war, provides hope and despair for these people, which could ultimately lead to her own undoing.
There's a frightening normality in Sabawi's script and the conversations between the characters. At one point Omar and Leila are discussing separate sleeping arrangements so that one parent might survive should their house be struck by a bomb, and the next they're agonising about social media and facebook posts. The way that living inside a war zone is portrayed highlights the brutal truth of what it means to face death on a daily basis, but this isn't all that THEM is. Despite the threat to their lives, Sabwai allows her characters to be more than their circumstances and injects moments of tenderness and humour into scenes, thus enabling "us" to relate even more to "them".
The production has brought together an impressive cast who simultaneously bring out the fear and the bravery of their characters. Greenstone exposes the complexities of Salma so convincingly that you're left conflicted about whether she is as terrible a person as some of the characters think she is or if she was justified in doing what she did. Doueihy and Hammoud share an impressive chemistry that adds to the tension between Leila's expression to leave and Omar's insistence on staying. Vella and Jones-Shukoor do great work in depicting how differently two friends might react to war but eliciting sympathetic responses for both of them.
Under Bagryana Popov's direction there are numerous set changes and she wisely has musician Nahed Elrayes play the piano on stage and become part of the transition to keep audiences in the world being presented. The urgency with which the cast move during this time signifies the anxiety and uncertainty that they are experiencing. Piles of rubble lay scattered across the stage and the white floor resembling stone and concrete reinforces the harshness of their surroundings.
THEM touches on various aspects of war but the overall story paints a bigger picture on how it destroys the lives of countless innocent people who just want to lead a happy, peaceful and safe life. Given the political climate in which we live in and the controversy surrounding whether refugees should be permitted into this country, THEM is a powerful reminder that when it comes to humanity, there is no them but only an us.
Venue: La Mama Courthouse, 349 Drummond St. Carlton.
Season: until 9 June| Wed 6:30pm. Thur - Sat 7:30pm, Sun 4:00pm
Tickets: $30 Full | $20 Conc
Bookings: La Mama Theatre
*The entire season of THEM is sold out, but with more sessions possibly being planned it's worth keeping an eye out on the La Mama website, or you can just try your luck at the door.
Photo Credit: Justyn Koh