Seven years on, Syria’s civil war is still raging. Its death toll is nudging half a million, and ten times as many people have been displaced. For those that remain, conflict is the new normal and as the playwright Liwaa Yazji understands all too well, when war becomes your reality, reality loses its shape. Developed with the Royal Court Theater’s international department, Yazji’s “Goats” shows us a Syria that has stopped making sense.
Like Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22,” or even Michael Herr’s Vietnam diary “Dispatches,” “Goats” understands the way war turns logic in on itself. It centers on a government scheme to compensate grieving families with a goat for every martyr. By turning death into an absurd form of livelihood, Yazji tears apart the empty rhetoric of martyrdom that, far from instilling death with meaning, elevates it to an end in itself.
According to the officious local politician Abu al-Tayyib (Amer Hlehel), a mouthpiece for the Assad regime, the great goat giveaway will be “a model for economic, social, national and human development.” That makes war a solution to itself. The conflict that has ravaged Syria (news reports tell of crop devastation and egg depletion) is effectively identified as a route to renewal and repair. More martyrs means more goats. More goats, more money. More death, more life.
Martyrdom, at least in this instance, is arbitrary; a status conferred on the death by the regime and so prone to be co-opted for political ends. “Goats” opens on a mass funeral: al-Tayyib gives a camera-friendly address over a stage of plain coffins honoring a fresh batch of martyrs. One grieving mother, Imm Ghassan (Souad Faress), vows silence until her son’s glorious death is avenged. A father, Abu Firas (Carlos Chahine), demands proof that it’s his son in the box.
As the play wheels on, Yazji makes it increasingly clear that the majority of these soldiers, and many like them, do not die heroic, honorable deaths. Some are suicides, some savages, some merely stupid. Most are little more than cannon fodder, and “Goats” is, at heart, a truther’s quest: two grieving parents come to question, and eventually defy, the diktats of a dogmatic regime.
This Syria is a post-truth state, and Yazji conveys the slipperiness of life built on the lies of a dishonest regime. Characters are caught between so-called “terrorist” rebels and a regime willing to send their sons to the slaughter. Yazji also works as a documentary filmmaker, but what can a documentarian do when reality itself beggars belief? Everything in “Goats” has its roots in reality, but the truth comes out looking like classic theater of the absurd: A village overrun with goats could be pure Eugene Ionesco, while the righteous father seeking answers smacks of Camus or Kafka.
By bringing real goats onstage, director Hamish Pirie’s production makes them metaphorical. In clomping around as they please, they are as much a distraction to us as they are to the Syrian population — yet being pliant and easily led by actors with food, they symbolize a certainly gullibility too. Their reality is offset against camera trickery, live feeds and rolling news convey a screen-addled culture of media distortion. Rosie Elnhile’s bright pink box of a stage turns all of Syria into a green-screen TV studio.
It’s a busy production, but it’s a busy play and its problems stem from Yazji’s urge to document the many strange details of Syria. Rather than paring back to a plot, we get tangents about military fathers squabbling over their sons’ fates and a gaggle of teenage boys, reveling in western vices knowing the frontline beckons. If “Goats” tries to follow the impact of martyrdom on notions of masculinity (dead soldiers stare out of photoshopped portraits like angels-in-arms), it overloads a play that offers symbolism to an audience that needs context.