Sometimes you fall in love with a play, and like love, not always for the most logical of reasons. David Greig’s Damascus is a house and place of dreams. I remember a night, very similar to the one Greig describes, in Tehran, before the revolution, when the night sky too was very blue (though we couldn’t see snow on the mountain tips as Greig describes in his Damascus) but we danced rock n’roll on the dance floor in a western style night club at odds with the world beyond the twirling whiz ball, with its ladies in chadors and sewage running in the street. Western embassies were sited north of the main street and of course, had running water.
Something of that contradiction and allure is caught by Greig in a play which, like Anne Washburn’s The Internationalist (seen last year at the Gate) attempts to come to grips with cultural relativism, westerners travelling in foreign lands, lost in translation misunderstandings and of course, Middle East Palestinian/Israeli politics.
Not for nothing does his leading female character, Muna (a fine Nathalie Armin) now living in Damascus, have parents who were displaced after the British mandate in 1948. Throughout, she coolly but mercilessly promulgates the Palestinian as well as Syrian line.
But Greig is neither so crass or crude as to rely on ideological rant. Damascus is a tale of incomers becoming seduced and intoxicated by the Middle East and locals wanting out, to the west, to Hollywood of all places.
Greig therefore spins us a personal yarn - against a battery of videos reflecting the gruesome violence going on beyond the personal dilemmas of his characters - about Paul, a Scottish writer of educational English textbooks (a dishevelled, wonderfully awkward Paul Higgins) arriving in a Damascus hotel, staffed by Zakaria, a porter (Khalid Laith) who when not thinking about bedding American tourists, has written his `life’ and is desperate for his story to reach the west through Paul. When this turns out to be a false hope – as it does with so many of the other characters – and his escape route snaps shut, tragedy ensues.
As a metaphor for western clumsiness – personal and geo-political – Damascus works very effectively. As a coherent narrative, Greig perhaps throws too many irons into his fire with subplots about Muna’s ex-lover and cynical sometime university teacher, Wasim (Alex Elliott), and a transsexual pianist and ex-KGB agent in winning green frock (Dolya Gavanski) - who nonetheless constantly nudges the play into realms of fantasy.
Philip Howard’s Traverse production tends towards the mumbly over-naturalistic. But so riveting is Greig’s preoccupation with language and so humane his treatment, Damascus emerges as a gently provocative comedy played out against a terrible backdrop of history and insoluble griefs.