"Wheat. Meat. Heat. Syria," begins the play, portentously. The pointed look into the audience accompanying this abrupt shift from sieves to civil war has the hand-wringing air of an Oxfam appeal – but thankfully it doesn't last long.
Corinne Jaber's Oh My Sweet Land takes an indirect approach to the war-torn nation. We hear stories of Syria not through breathless reportage or graphic images, but through a calm recollection as she cooks in her Parisian kitchen. The play is full of stories of war, but they are told unsensationally, with the audience left to make up its own mind.
Jaber (or rather her character) recounts while making kubah, a spicy, traditional sort of Syrian meat roll. It smells fantastically authentic and leads us by the nose, as it were, straight to a Damascan kitchen. We are reminded Syria has good to offer as well.
We hear how Jaber, a half-Syrian, grew up in Europe. The country and its political problems seem far away to her, too, until she meets a revolutionary in Paris, whom she follows towards the war.
She tells how she works her way through the Middle East, meeting rebels and refugees, all with affecting stories of their own. These, and the record of Jaber's own journey, are the meat of the play.
We hear them second- or third-hand, months after the events they describe. It makes for a more intellectual appreciation of the war.
A refugee wife who lost her husband in the most harrowing circumstances insists she is 'much better' now; the same goes for a girl whose chief joy is that she no longer has worms infecting open wounds on her head.
For the briefest of moments we hear how Jaber dashed into Syria – and returned the same day having seen no fighting. As she marvels at the country's natural beauty, we are reminded that war is more nuanced than unrelenting horror.
But the fear and the threats and the stories remain. Oh My Sweet Land passes over easy histrionics to give what feels like a deeper and slower appreciation of the people caught up in conflict. The result is unsettling.
In the final scene Jaber finishes her kubah. It smelled delicious, but after what we had heard I doubt anybody felt much like eating.