Queens of Syria (Young Vic)

Zoe Lafferty’s production reminds us how much refugees leave behind

Two and a half millennia, and nothing changes. Women are still the leftovers of war. Just as Euripides’ Women of Troy lost their homes, their husbands and their children to war, so too have these Queens of Syria. Stood shoulder to shoulder onstage, 13 in total, they become a living chorus: "Some agonies are beyond telling and some must be told."

In 2013, fifty Syrian women, all refugees, came together in Jordan. After drama therapy workshops, they performed The Trojan Women at the National Theatre in Amman – a process documented in Yasmin Fedda’s film. Queens of Syria is, in a sense, the staged version of that documentary – most of the cast were in that original performance in Jordan. Directed by Zoe Lafferty, whose verbatim play Fear of Breathing encapsulated life in Syria under civil war two years ago, it cuts from the original choral speeches, spoken in sync, to personal reflection and testimony.

Fiction crashes into fact; art into life; Troy into Syria. Abstract generalities become harsh realities. There’s no shaking them off. When these women talk of home, that place exists – or, at least, it existed. Their loss is real. "Troy is but a smoking city," they start. It means much more in their mouths.

Theatrically, Queens of Syria is sparse – almost a litany. As a chorus, these women embody a collective experience. They speak with sharp edges – not mournful, but firm. As individuals, they colour that in. Their communal home, their homeland, is made up of many homes – in Aleppo, in Damascus, in Homs.

That, really, is what these women have lost: home. Here, refugees can be synonymous with arrival. The refugee crisis is supposedly ours; Europe’s problem. Queens of Syria is a stark corrective: a reminder that to be a refugee is to leave somewhere behind. One by one, these women remember their homes, their land, their world. They detail the things they most miss, be they balcony views or garden swings. Simple things. Nothings, really. Memories. Meanings. Most of all, smells: the jasmine that hangs in the air, the tang of Arabian coffee, Syria’s air with its own particular freshness. All that they have left are mementos: children’s certificates and family photos; the keys to a house that may or may not stay standing. Make no mistake: our crisis is nothing on theirs.

Reflective but pressing, it’s undeniably powerful. Sat face to face with these women, you can only put yourself in their shoes. They may speak another language and dress in different clothes, but there’s no mistaking the shapes of the lives they have lost. Indeed, it is the very ordinariness of those lives that’s so affecting. You recognise the annual rites of passage, the home comforts, the routines. Through no fault of their own, all that has been lost. Lives interrupted. Normalities splintered.

What does it achieve? Sometimes the register seems to slip into charity appeal, but that’s incidental. Queens of Syria isn’t really about us, its audience. One woman recounts all the stock responses – well-meaning, but patronising and intrusive. "How come you have a smartphone?" is one. "Can I make a play from your story?" another. Queens of Syria isn’t that. It is an expression, not an experience. It gives voice to loss, airs grievances, speaks of the past and of pain. It is its own process; not for us, but for them. All we can do, as an audience. is listen, acknowledge and process. Again: this is not our crisis.

Queens of Syria runs at the Young Vic until 9 July, then tours the UK until 24 July. Details here.