Borders forces us to face the devastation of the Syrian Civil War 

Eyes Wide Open

click to enlarge Borders' actress Avital lvova starred in last year's Spoleto play, Angels

Rosalind Furlong

Borders' actress Avital lvova starred in last year's Spoleto play, Angels

The pain and devastation of the Syrian Civil War confronts us mostly in numbers. Since the start of the war in 2011, 400,000 Syrians have died, according to the United Nations envoy for Syria. Over five million people had no option but to leave the Eastern Mediterranean country, along with their homes, jobs, and sometimes their families, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. And about 6.1 million people are displaced from their homes within the embattled republic.

The numbers are colossal, startling, and almost unimaginable. You might have glossed over that paragraph, dismissing it as another statistics lesson that falls short of the reality and humanity of the situation. Not only are there multiple opposing forces in this storied conflict, but it's all happening in a part of the world where borders are a mere suggestion in the catch-all Western concept that is the "Middle East."

It's a tough thing to bring to life for a comedy writer, but it's working out so far. Henry Naylor's Borders is an intimate and interwoven tale of two artists caught in the throes of the Syrian Civil War for very different reasons: a British photographer who gets sucked into the hoopla surrounding his work and a Syrian graffiti artist trying to escape the tyrannical rule of Bashar Al-Assad.

Borders won the Best of Edinburgh theater award last year, and it's headed to Spoleto this year for a six-night run at Woolfe Street Playhouse.

Naylor, 52, rose to prominence as head writer for Spitting Image, a satirical puppet show on ITV, and later with Parson and Naylor's Pull-Out Sections, a satirical news show he co-hosted with comedian Andy Parsons that ran on BBC Radio 2 for six years.

"It was a lighthearted take on the week's news and all that was happening at the time was the war in Afghanistan, so it was a testing time to be writing comedy," Naylor says.

One day early in the show's run, Naylor watched from London as a BBC journalist in Kabul survived a blast. The cameraman on the scene that day happened to be his old flat mate, so he phoned him up. Before he knew it, he was touring the war-torn city he had been quipping about for a year.

"It completely changed my life," he says. "From that moment, I realized it's easy to be glib about the news, but there are serious issues that need to be addressed."

Four years ago and 12 years after his visit to Kabul, Naylor began applying the pithy, to-the-point style he perfected as a comedy writer to more serious, long-form material in the hopes of crystallizing conflicts that Western countries are strategically involved in yet wholly removed from.

"It's very important to remind people what's going on out there," Naylor says. The Western media has kind of forgotten that the [Syrian refugee] crisis exists. You can hardly find it in the papers."

When you do find stories about it, they start out much like this article, with unidentifiable numbers, names, and facts swirling within a tidal wave of scrolling headlines. A play like Borders, made vivid by the revelatory performances of two actors on a single stage, might help bridge that gap in comprehension for those lucky enough to see it.

More than 18,000 Syrian refugees were resettled in the United States between October 2011 and December 2016, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute.

An Internet-aided encounter helped put those numbers into focus, and changed the course of production on Borders.

During a performance of Naylor's last play, Angel, in New York last year, the comedian-turned-playwright began a digital back-and-forth with an audience member who tweeted how much he loved the show. He turned out to be Maher Nasser, director of the outreach division of the United Nations, who invited him and actress Avital Lvova, 26, to his office the morning after.

"It was incredible because we got to meet so many people," recalled Lvova, star of both plays, in a phone call from Australia after a highly praised run of Borders in Adelaide.

One young woman's story was particularly striking. "She just ran away from Syria and she studies journalism at Columbia University," Lvova said. "She was one of the lucky few who got out, because she got a scholarship, but her whole family was scattered all over the world. Her brother is somewhere else, and meeting her was a big change for both of us, because we realized how important this play was."

Her experiences directly inspired some of the most evocative scenes in Borders. For Lvova, meeting the young woman reminded her of the importance of using art to tell meaningful stories, and of the power of redirecting a sliver of an audience's attention.

"We have a choice, where to read, what to read, how much to take in," she said. "Whereas if you go to theater show and you go in for an hour, there's no way to escape."

Borders heads to Woolfe Street Playhouse on Fri. May 25. Find out more and buy tickets online at spoloetousa.org.


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