Meta-theatre, voyeurism and the vogue for Lecoq

Nicky Woolf's second Edinburgh diary.

 

August 9. Day two.

The day dawns with rude punctuality. I am not, by inclination, an early riser, but by seven the sun is shining through the open window on my face with tropical brutality: the city is glorying in a heatwave. I rise mostly in order to stave off sunburn, and head for the Pleasance.

The first show I see is a real gem. Greenlight Theatre's Seeing Double is really two plays, Double: Vision and Double: Figures, running simultaneously with a video-link between the two, and I begin my day with the former. The shows together are a meta-theatrical farce about the collapse of an ambitious production of Macbeth, and it is riotously funny and tightly performed, so I book for the next day's production of Figures, to complete my set.

Next door to it, at the Pleasance courtyard, is a low black construction which houses the Peep stage, set up so that the audience sits in booths surrounding the stage in the middle, separated from their fellow viewers by curtains and from the performers by one-way glass; the sound comes over headphones. There are three short (20 minute) shows that play here, all about sex and sexuality, and I see the middle show, 69, by the Royal Court's Leo Butler. It is immaculately directed, production values are clearly very high and the voyeuristic effect works uncomfortably well.

My two shows for the evening are both by companies that have been formed out of the Jacques Lecoq drama school. Lecoq (childish snigger) is famous for physical theatre, focussing on dynamic movement and choreography, and is also a famously brutal learning environment: ninety students are accepted for the first year of the course, but sixty of them have been culled by the end of the first year. Lecoq is very much in vogue at Edinburgh this year; there are lots of shows by Lecoq graduates this year. I chose two of them for my first evening.

Edinburgh, built on a series of closely-packed and steep hills and hillocks, is a multi-layered city. From Cowgate, a valley street, you can look up at Nicholson, one of the city's great thoroughfares, crossing about fifty feet above you on an ancient stone arch, the buildings whose doors open onto it five stories above descend chaotically to the lower level, one city on top of another.

It is the Underbelly that takes the best advantage of this labyrinthine civic architecture. Its Cowgate headquarters is a bewildering warren of tunnels and dank chambers buried in the bowels of the city, and my first show, Captain Ko and the Planet of Rice, is in one of its deepest and dankest. This vaulted dungeon is an apt setting for a deeply, deeply surreal performance about the end of the space race, science fiction, and memory loss. The audacity of the conception is breathtaking, and the effect is a show whose overall effect is a little bit mind-altering; at times too weird, but also at times strangely beautiful. It leaves me feeling a little winded, so I gulp a restorative libation at the Library Bar at the Gilded Balloon, and then head to the second show of the night.

This is Centralia at Zoo Aviary, a charming character-comedy about the last three inhabitants of a town in Pennsylvania that is beset by a slow-burning seam of coal that runs beneath it, turning into a superheated nightmare of smoke and yawning infernal chasms. It is a wonderful play, the characters are lovingly designed and there are some fantastic physical set-pieces, just in case we had forgotten what Lecoq training is all about; but the most amazing thing is that the story of the town of Centralia is entirely and dramatically true.

Day One: The Big Four explained.

Voyeurs wanted: Peep's show, 69. Photo: Getty

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Hamzah al Zobi
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Meet the Syrians using education to escape the refugee camps

On the bus to university with Syrian refugees in Jordan. 

The bus to Zarqa University leaves Jordan’s largest refugee camp at 7am sharp. The journey is one of the day’s highlights for the Syrian students who ride this route - a chance to plan weekend get-togethers, bemoan heavy course loads and even enjoy the occasional school-bus style sing-along. It’s also their daily ticket out of Za’atari camp and a means of escaping the dreary realities of refugee life.

“We are the lucky ones. Most had to give up their dreams of higher education” says 19-year-old Reema Nasser Al Hamad, whose family fled to Jordan five years ago when bombs destroyed her home in Dara’a, Syria. She shudders to think of the alternatives: aimless days spent sitting in a crowded caravan, or early marriage. “After the war, students in Syria lost their cities, their opportunities and their futures, so many of the girls just married when they got here. There’s a huge difference between the lives of those who study and those who don’t.”

Despite missing two years of school, Reema (pictured below) was able to pass her exams before securing a Saudi-funded scholarship to study Pharmacy at Zaraq’ University. “In Syria, I’d planned to do medicine and be a doctor because I always had high grades. There are fewer choices for us here but I’m happy to be studying at all,” she says. Hamza al Zobi, who’s studying Pharmacy on an the EU-funded EDU-Syria programnme, says young Syrians are hungry to learn. “We all have friends and relatives who didn’t get this chance and we feel so upset for them. If they’re not well educated, how can they go back and do the right thing for our country?”

More than a quarter of 18-24 year olds in Syria were enrolled in higher education when the war broke out. “Based on data provided by UNHCR we assess that around 20,000 young Syrians in Jordan would qualify for vocational education and higher education,” says Job Arts, Programme Manager Education and Youth, EU Delegation to Jordan, which is supporting some 1800 Syrians and disadvantaged Jordanians on degree courses in Jordan.

“While the number of places for Syrian students to pursue their education has increased dramatically over the past few years, there are still many more interested students than spaces available for study,” says Sarah Dryden-Peterson, non-resident Fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. “Without these possibilities, young Syrians will lose the kind of hope that is essential to productive futures.”

According to the Jordan Response Platform for the Syria Crisis, 1,250 Syrian youth were in higher education in Jordan in 2016. Building on commitments made by the international community at the London Conference on Syria last year, the Jordanian government hopes to secure funding to increase access to tertiary education and vocational training at the upcoming conference in Brussels this April.

“Jordan views higher education from a strategic point of view, specifically in terms of providing the Syrian youth with the education, skill and knowledge that will allow the opportunity to be part of rebuilding their country once the current situation comes to an end,” says Feda Gharaibeh, Director, Humanitarian Relief Coordination Unit at the Jordanian Ministry of Planning & International Cooperation.

Reema plans to return to Syria when the war is over. “After graduation a lot of students want to go to Europe. That would be fine for me too if it’s just to do a masters or doctorate, but then I want to go back to Syria and use what I’ve learnt to help my people.” Now four semesters into her course, she is making good progress but says adapting to the Jordanian education system was a challenge. “It’s really difficult for us. Classes are taught in English and the teaching style is different. They also have a lot more exams here.”

Only the brightest stand a chance of securing a scholarship but many young Syrians have seen their grades plummet after missing years of schooling. For, some, it’s too late to catch up. Accountancy student Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, came to Jordan in 2013 with his younger brother Khalil, now 19, who works in a print shop. “He stopped studying when he was 14. He didn’t even have a chance to get his high school certificate,” says Ibrahim.

Attempts to bridge the gap through open and distance learning programmes aren’t always effective. “It’s not a tool that is frequently used in the education environment in the Middle East,” explains Arts. Refugee students' access to electricity, internet connections, computers and space to study can be in short supply. Moreover, many students seek the escapism that a university education offers. “In our dialogue with parents and students, we often hear the phrase ‘being normal again’,” Arts adds.

Hamzah tries to help fellow students achieve this in his role as representative for the Syrian community at Zarqa University. He and Reema are part of a team that offers advice to new students and support for those from poorer families living in the camps. “There are 900 Syrian students here and each one has a different story of suffering,” says Hamzah, who organises group trips to restaurants and fairgrounds, helping to create a sense of regular student life. “It makes us forget what we are,” explains Reema.

During term time, she prefers to stay with her uncle in Mafraq, a city nearby. It’s hard to study in Za’atari. As soon as the power comes on at 5pm, her brothers switch on the TV, making it difficult to concentrate in the cramped caravan they share. There’s nowhere else to go; the camp is dangerous at night, particularly for young women. It’s even more crowded since the arrival of her baby sister. Reema remembers how her mother sobbed when she learned of the pregnancy, worried about bringing another child into the makeshift world of the camp.

But in five years a lot has changed. “In Syria, I had never left my village; now I feel there is another world to know,” says Reema. Like many Syrian students, she worries about life after university, particularly if they stay in Jordan where employment opportunities remain restricted for Syrian refugees. “It seems like work is forbidden to us Syrians and without a job we can’t take control of our lives. We’re studying hard but with no prospects,” says Hamzah. Few can see beyond graduation. “The future is opaque for us,” he adds, “We’re just living day by day.”

To date, the Jordanian government has issued some 39,000 works permits out of the 200,000 it pledged to make available for Syrians during the London Conference last February. However, with these opportunities built around low-income roles, primarily in the construction, agriculture, and textile manufacture sectors, the way for Syrian university graduates in Jordan still seems barred.

“Jordan is a small country with limited job opportunities,” says Ghaith Rababah Head of Projects & International Cooperation Unit (PICU) at the Ministry of Higher Education & Scientific Research. “Maybe the market will be better able to absorb educated Syrians at a later stage.”

In the meantime, higher education offers young Syrians a semblance of the security and stability their lives otherwise lack, Rababah continues. Given the opportunity to “use their talents for something good”, he adds, young people placed in difficult situations are less likely to fall prey to extremist ideologies and be “tricked into committing terrorist acts".