New hope for the West End?

The success of <a href="http://www.donmarwestend.com/ivanov/">Ivanov</a> this week is a beacon of ho

Tom Stoppard’s version of the Chekhov play is part of the Donmar's residency at Wyndham's theatre, an ambitious project that aims, says director Michael Grandage, to bring about a return to straight theatre in the West End and make it accessible to all.

Tickets will be sold at Donmar rather than West End prices, with 130 tickets per performance going for £10, which means that each show will need to sell a formidable 80% of the 750 seats to break even. However, the success of Grandage’s Othello last autumn, which sold out so quickly it left many disappointed, suggests that this is by no means unlikely.

Ivanov has been rapturously received, with critics enthusiastically relating to Kenneth Brannagh’s debt-ridden and crumbling lead, a moody, self-loathing, comic Russian Hamlet with [the mother of all midlife crises]. A slight improvement, then, on the play’s 1897 premiere, after which a disgusted Chekhov complained of his actors: "They don’t know their parts, make mistakes, talk nonsense. Every word cuts me like a knife in my back."

Video games and Bodysnatchers

In the wake of this spring's disconcerting news that video games are the most lucrative media products around these days, this year’s Cambridge Film Festival
will show a series of Machinima films, made using techniques and tools more commonly used in games than cinema. The Festival’s Machinima series will show film from recognised genres translated into CGI worlds, along with a discussion of the place of Machinima films in the world of film today.

Matt Kelland, co-curator of the series, explains the popularity of this surreal and often surprising new branch of cinema: ‘As young people become more enaged with internet culture and home-produced content, they are becoming more interested in user-created movies like machinima, and less interested in broadcast content.’

Co-curator Saint John Walker, however, interprets it in terms of ‘the spectacular/fantasy versus documentation/realism. Games and CGI/VFX cinema are growing; film realism is shrinking.’ He is optimistic about the future: "In five years time we'll see the Machinima era as a watershed, like the talkies!"

Films showing in the series will include Lainy Voom’s Black Swan, Tony Bannan's Folie à Deux (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4G0L8eepoXk) and the video made by Phil Rice for the Radiohead song "Bodysnatchers".

Plugged in festival

The festival season is now over (which is, I suspect, why the weather has improved so suspiciously suddenly), but if you’re not quite ready to let go, swap your wellies for a pair of headphones and head to Dalston's Café Oto this weekend. The London Placard Headphone Festival takes place this Saturday, with banks of headphone splitters taking the place of PAs to provide a concentrated yet strangely isolating listening experience. The audience will bring their own headphones, and plug into electronica from the likes of Hamster Ate My Garage Band and Leafcutter John, and the "medieval drum robot and synth array" of Bavin. Which, all in all, sounds like a far wiser way of seeking sound quality this weekend than the alternative – joining Metallica fans petitioning for a rerecorded and remastered Death Magnetic, having decided that its current version sounds better on Guitar Hero.

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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser