In his fourth instalment of the Arabian Nightmares series, Henry Naylor attempts to finally bridge the gap between the divided East and West. Spanning over 17 years, Borders follows the lives of two young individuals – one a British photographer, the other a Syrian artist and activist – connected by their experiences of war and art.
With only two stools resting on a bare stage, director Michael Cabot leaves his two actors to their own devices. With only their stories to tell, both take us on their individual journeys, finding a crossroads in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea in 2015. While there some overlaps in their narratives, Sebastian Nightingale and the Syrian woman, ‘Nameless’ greatly contrast one another. Sebastian’s journey to fame is one that is highly amusing, as he documents his struggles as a political photographer and later rise in the celebrity world. Graham O’Mara’s features and mannerisms echo Hugh Laurie at his best, and the various characters he portrays are each well characterised. The same can be said for actress Avital Lvova. Lvova uses her whole body in each characterisation, convincingly portraying the other players in the Syrian woman’s story. Her portrayal of Naylor’s fiery young protagonist is exceptional, and she tells her story with such force and passion that she provides much of Borders’ impact.
While the production may culminate in these two worlds meeting, the distance between the two characters – both geographically and mentally – can prove to be problematic. Most viewers will welcome the distinction between the two, particularly when it comes to O’Mara’s character. Sebastian’s various celebrity encounters – from Daniel Beddingfield to Angelina Jolie – provide respite from Lvova’s traumatising experiences. However, there reaches a point where Sebastian’s story begins to interrupt the Syrian’s woman story in a detrimental way. His anecdotes are sometimes too short, merely begging for attention the same way the media focuses on Western suffering over the atrocities in the Middle East. As the embodiment of both the corrupt Western world and the media, Sebastian is faultless. His desire to find profit in other people’s suffering (to the point where he is frustrated to miss the events of 9/11) is a brutally honest reflection of Western society. However, these laughs to relieve the tension demean the story that Lvova’s character has to tell. Yes, Borders would be unbearable if we were to hear Lvova’s story alone. However, that is surely the point that Naylor is trying to make. The suffering that the people in Syria and other war-torn nations endure we cannot even begin to imagine – even Lvova’s Nameless is just a single voice in a crowd of anonymous, unheard figures. Sebastian’s story, meanwhile, allows us to seek comfort in our Western lives – in what is safe and familiar to us – at the expense of having a phenomenal impact on the audience.
Borders appears to have had a major impact on Fringe audiences this year. Indeed, there are some exceptional elements within this play; I just worry that they may be overshadowed by the audience’s laughs.
Borders by Henry Naylor
Gilded Balloon Teviot – Dining Room (Venue 14)
Until 28th August (not 16th)
Photo credit: Steve Ullathorne