Syrian actors board ‘Love Boat’ for Europe in tragicomedy

The vessel, a prop mounted on a stage in the Jordanian capital, is the centerpiece of a one-act tragicomedy

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Six Syrian actors with stories to tell are huddled in a small vessel headed for Europe on a "Love Boat" journey to escape the conflict that has ravaged their homeland.

The vessel, a prop mounted on a stage in the Jordanian capital, is the centerpiece of a one-act tragicomedy to celebrate life and break what its director calls the "three biggest taboos in Arab society: religion, sex and politics".

It tells of the five-year conflict that has killed more than 270,000 people, forever maimed many others and forced millions to flee their homes, often on perilous trips across the Mediterranean.

With their theatre company back home decimated by the bloodshed, the actors who survived are reunited in their flight and by a determination to restart their broken lives.

They act under their own names, and some drew from personal experiences. Iman, one of the two women, plays a teenager hit by shrapnel in the southern province of Daraa who had a leg amputated -- a role not far from her own real-life trauma of losing her right leg due to shrapnel wounds. Haya, a 25-year-old, created a character who spent 227 days in regime jails where she was raped daily, rendering homage to the many Syrian women who lived such a nightmare.

Among the men are Mohammed who plays a fictional singer who lost a hand in the war and Adnan whose character was jailed for taking part in anti-regime protests -- as Adnan was in real life. Mahmud, meanwhile, plays a man trapped in the besieged Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmuk near Damascus -- the very camp from which the real-life Mahmud fled to Jordan.

In the play, the actors set off across the Mediterranean first to Greece, then Italy, Spain, France, Britain and Germany, with only a map of Europe and a telescope, hoping one of those countries will take them in.

As each country appears on the horizon, the actors perform a scene from classical plays written by Aristophanes, Goldoni, Cervantes, Moliere and Shakespeare.

The texts are carefully chosen to mirror life in conflict-plagued Syria, with its slew of armed forces, including ISIS, as well as the taboos of Arab society.

"I wanted through this play to pay tribute to those who have died at sea, those forced to flee their country because of the war and the destruction," director Nawar Bulbul said at the Amman premiere.

"These people boarded makeshift boats to undertake a perilous voyage because of their love of life," said Bulbul.

King Lear's Storm

Last year, he directed Syrian refugee children in a version of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" and the year before he produced "King Lear", also with child actors from Zaatari camp in northern Jordan.

In "Love Boat", Bulbul borrows from the grand masters of European drama to send out his message.

Off the Greek coast, the actors deliver lines from Aristophanes's "The Knight", a satire on social and political life, and then from Carlo Goldoni's "Servant of Two Masters" as they near Italy.

Spain is reserved for Cervantes and his masterpiece "Don Quixote", who set out on adventures to defend the helpless and fight evil aided by his servant and companion Sancho Panza.

Bulbul revisited a scene in which Don Quixote comes across a group of shackled prisoners and asks his friend why these "wretched people" are being held in chains.

"Because I am in love," shouts one actor.

"Because I listen to music," says another, apparently referring to prohibitions enforced by Sunni Muslim extremists such as IS.

As the boat reaches the French coast, the actors deliver lines from Moliere's "Tartuffe" or "The Impostor", the story of a self-declared holy man who uses religion to sate his sexual desires.

In that scene, an actor swiftly changes costume to appear bearded and in a flowing robe like ISIS's self-styled caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The sea journey ends with a tragedy, Shakespeare's "King Lear", as the raging storm sinks the boat, taking to the depths more victims of Syria's war.

More than 110,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean to Greece and Italy so far this year, and 413 have drowned trying, the International Organization for Migration said in February.

Last year, 3,770 people lost their lives, including many children, trying to reach Europe.