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Gardens Speak (Battersea Arts Centre)

Tania El Khoury invites audiences into an interactive sound installation

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Tania El Khoury, the creator of the immersive sound installation we are about to step into, invites us to remove our shoes and socks and don long plastic mackintoshs. She offers us postcards and torches from a wicker basket and directs us into the adjoining room, a dimly-lit and beautifully perfumed space with a long bed of soil running down its centre. At intervals stand grave stones, one for each of us, corresponding to the names on our cards.

We've each been paired with one of the many Syrian activists who have died and been buried in the gardens of their homes, and the next forty minutes or so offers a powerful, visceral engagement with that individual and their story. To say more than that would be to take away from the experience, because the potency of El Khoury's work depends partly on the surprise of one's own response to the stories being told and the means of their telling. That response is intellectual and emotional, but it's also physical, and it's precisely that physicality that offers a route into a topic that - like so many long-lasting foreign conflicts before it - can feel very distant to so many of us.

Gardens Speak takes as its starting point a grim domestic reality and pulls heartbreaking, complex threads of stories from it with a gentle touch, opening up the lives of 10 ordinary Syrians and their grieving families to theatregoers in a country far, far away. It's technically assured too, interspersing storytelling and song, and playing with sound in such a way that the audience members are at times isolated within their own experience and at times brought together as a group.

This piece will change the way you think - perhaps about Syria, perhaps about protest or mourning, perhaps about much more than that - and it will stay with you. For me at least, one visit may not be enough.

Gardens Speak runs at Battersea Arts Centre until 19 March.


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