Monday, 3 July 2017

The Dramaturgy is Safe: Matthew Zajac @ Edfringe 2017

The Sky is Safe is Dogstar Theatre’s fifth production to be staged at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and a new work and personal response to the Syrian tragedy, written and created by Matthew Zajac.  

It is a love story, a war story and a microcosm of our time.
The production has been selected as part of the 2017 Made in Scotland Showcase and opens on Friday 4 August at Summerhall, following a preview on Wednesday 2 August and runs until Sunday 27 August.  

It will then undertake a post festival tour throughout the country from the Highlands to the Scottish  Borders.

The intimate yet epic story of identity and power, choice and its absence, a story of brutality and love will be brought to life by Matthew Zajac and director Ben Harrison, with video design by Tim Reid - all original members of the team who created the multi-award winning play The Tailor of Inverness. 

Venue 26 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Summerhall Main Hall                                     Date/times: Aug 4-14, 15-20, 22-27 at 19.45  (not Aug 14,21)                                           

What was the inspiration for this performance?

In 2012 I was stranded in Istanbul for nine days while I waited for an Iranian visa which eventually was refused due to my UK nationality.  This was during a period when diplomatic relations had broken down between iran and the UK.  I’d been due to go to Iran to play a role in a feature film.  I had a couple of interesting encounters on Istanbul’s streets and wrote about them.  Last year I was pondering a new project for Dogstar and remembered the Istanbul experience.  I learned that there were now around 350,000 Syrian refugees in the city and I decided to try to marry my earlier experience with that of Syrian women trying to make a life in the city.  

In March this year, I returned to istanbul and, with the help of a local NGO, I had the great privilege of meeting and interviewing a number of Syrian women in their homes.  A lot of what Amal, the female character in The Sky Is Safe comes from these interviews.  She is essentially an everywoman, a composite character who embodies aspects of the female experience of the Syrian war.  

The play is a two-hander, and I’ll be playing Gordon, a Scottish executive on a work assignment in Istanbul.  His business has some bearing on the war, so he represents aspects of the West’s relationship to Syria and the greater Middle East.  We are lucky to have a wonderful creative team on this show - Director Ben Harrison, who worked with me on The Tailor of Inverness and Factor 9, Composer Pippa Murphy, Video Designer Tim Reid, Costume Designer Ali Maclaurin, Choreographer Dawn Hartley and Lighting Designer John Wilkie.  The Set Designer is Nihad Al Turk, a highly respected Syrian visual artist who came with his family to Scotland from a refugee camp in Lebanon 16 months ago.  Our main publicity image is one of Nihad’s paintings.

Is performance still a good space for the public discussion of ideas?                                                                              Of course, and more vital than ever in an increasingly mediated world.    

How did you become interested in making performance?                                                                                             I did a production of The Crucible at Inverness High school in 1976, which made me decide to become an actor.  I then studied drama at Bristol University and learned how and why drama exists and was determined at the end of all that to make new theatre.                                                                                                                                                                                         
Is there any particular approach to the making of the show?                                                                               Interviews with Syrian women in Istanbul have been central to the creation of this play.  Dogstar tries to synthesise theatre disciplines as fully as possible and we work in a very collaborative environment.    

Does the show fit with your usual productions?                                                                                                                Yes, it has stylistic similarities to most of our work - strong storytelling, individuals caught in the tides of history and politics, direct address, emotional and intellectual challenges and even some humour !     

What do you hope that the audience will experience?                                                                                                     An arresting story about the greatest tragedy of our time.  Empathy for the victims of war and admiration for their great strength.  Questions about our own responsibility and that of our society in general in relation to the Middle East and gender politics.

Matthew Zajac – his story                                                                        
In autumn 2012, I left Edinburgh on a flight to Istanbul in order to pick up a visa for my onward journey to Iran to play a lead role in a new Iranian feature film.  In 2011, the British Embassy in Tehran had been ransacked and the British diplomatic mission withdrew and, in turn, Iran’s diplomats were expelled from the UK.  The day after I arrived, I received a call from one of my contacts in Tehran informing me that there had been a delay in the processing of my visa and I would have to stay for a few days which eventually stretched to 10 days.  When I finally visited the Iranian Embassy to pick up the visa, I was asked for an authorisation number, which I had not received.  Several hours later, I was called once more by my contact and informed me that the visa had been refused because of my nationality.  I returned to Scotland.
 My stay in Istanbul had not been a waste of time.  It is an incredibly fascinating place, enormous and vibrant, a place where east really does meet west and I came across several interesting characters.  One particular encounter with what I can only describe as a street hustler gave me the germ for this project, well more than a germ as I went on a rather interesting and discomforting trip with him in the bustling commercial district centred around Taksim Square, from which I take the title of the play. 
 Since that stay in 2012, the Syrian tragedy has unfolded, with all its horrors and profoundly unsettling results.  Istanbul has been and remains a nexus of world politics, a mighty conduit for the traffic of ideas, ideologies, trade, religions and people, flowing in all directions.  The city is now home to over 300,000 Syrian refugees, many of whom are destitute, or close to it. 
DANA HAJAJ
is an actor and writer of Palestinian and Lebanese descent. She has three children and whilst completing her family, trained part-time at the Identity School of Acting, in London.
Theatre credits include Antigone and Timberlake Wertenbaker’s The Love of a Nightingale at The Cockpit Theatre and The Battle of Algiers at The Old Vic Tunnels. Screen credits include Leila in Leila Khaled, directed by Kate Madison and Unilever: Why bring a child into this world? by award winning film director Errol Morris. Dana has also written and produced short films after attending Raindance Film School and RADA workshops, before committing to full-time education. In 2016, she completed her studies with a First Class BA Hons degree in Humanities and Creative Writing and an MA in Screenwriting at London College of Communication, UAL. Dana lives in South East London with her boys and has a number of writing projects in development. With a particular interest in the Arab Diaspora, she is currently writing a Feature Film, TV Series and a Children’s Animation Series.

Pippa Murphy is composer, musical director and sound designer, choreography is by Dawn Hartley with lighting design by John Wilkie and costume design by Ali Maclaurin. Dana Hajaj completes the cast and set design is by Nihad Al Turk, a prominent Syrian artist who recently settled in Edinburgh with his family.

The Sky Is Safe is set on the opulent streets and shadowy alleys of Taksim, the commercial heart of        Istanbul where every conceivable transaction takes place. Two characters meet there, a Syrian refugee and a privileged westerner from northern Europe.  The anonymity of the metropolis allows them to     reinvent themselves, though in reality, they can’t escape who they are or what they represent.              Individual stories, images and impressions gathered by Zajac give voice to the characters, particularly to the voice of women, in relation to gender politics and resistance to war and exploitation.  

Turkey is currently harbouring around 3.5 million refugees from the Syrian war.  Over 350,000 are in
Istanbul.  

Song and poetry punctuate the action and humour will, perhaps inevitably, be filled with irony, but it will also serve as a humanising, positive force in a play which must necessarily confront murder,         degradation, slavery and violence.

Ben Harrison, director, said: “I have long been interested in borders and the unequal movement of   peoples across them. This was perhaps best illustrated in my show Roam, staged at Edinburgh airport in 2006 which looked at the way different borders treat different nationalities, as well as many other       aspects of global air travel. My collaboration with Matthew on The Tailor of Inverness, a piece which also looked at borders and nationality and the pressures these exert upon the individual, deepened my       interest in this area. In its encounter of two individuals in Istanbul, where East meets West, Matthew has found a compelling microcosm of the global forces acting in our world, particularly the great rift between the Arab/Muslim world on the one hand and the fortress of Europe on the other.”

The Sky is Safe is supported by Made in Scotland & Creative Scotland
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