Directed by Carissa Hope Lynch
Pros: A story delivered in a mesmerising social media context with a wonderful twist. The strong central performances are enjoyable and the discussion of sexuality, religion and politics is gently confrontational.
Cons: May not be relevant to those not so conversant with social media. The in-the-round staging poses some issues with delivering the dialogue clearly to all audience members.
Our Verdict: This is a very contemporary drama in every way. It is challenging yet engaging, mesmerizingly fast paced and dynamic.
The Ovalhouse is celebrating 50 years of dedication to “work that critiqued the mainstream, explored questions it was afraid to ask, offered an alternative cultural experience” and I can’t think of a better production to kick off with than Sour Lips. This play encapsulates all of these ideas and presents them in a challenging and engaging format. It is a fictitious account of actual events revolving around politics, sexuality and social media which creates a ‘speculative narrative’ on real happenings.
The story is about a Syrian-American political blogger, Amina Arraf (Gay Girl in Damascus), played by Lara Sawalha, and relates various aspects of her life as a lesbian Muslim. The touch paper is her kidnap from the streets of Damascus during the Arab Spring, which sparks a media frenzy and an international outcry. We find her in the company of Tom McMaster (played by Simon Darwen). The format is a piecemeal series of dialogues between Amina and Tom, blog entries and press and social media responses to the blog. At first these are not easy to tie together, just as in a social media environment related yet abstract ideas and opinions flood thick and fast. It is a little bewildering at this point and difficult to grasp the relationship between the protagonists. As the story evolves and unravels, the threads knit together and the twist is revealed with finesse and genuine impact.
The set is simple and generic which supports the concept that we could be anywhere on the internet or the real world. The ‘chorus’ of supporting actors are homogeneously dressed which is a fantastic way to represent the faceless aspect of media comment. It is staged centrally in the room with the audience on four sides. I liked this idea, although at times it is difficult to catch the lines being delivered, particularly if the performers are not directly facing you. That said, there is a lot of interesting and clever direction here, simple ideas delivered with great dramatic impact.
Amina is a complex role and Sawahla is adept at delivering it with strength and serenity, warmth and conviction. She encapsulates the heart of the ‘Girl’ though at some points she feels soulless – this may be intentionally placed to underpin the reveal. Darwen’s McMaster relentlessly drills into Amina’s psyche with passion, calculation and detached observation, all cleverly supporting his relationship with her. Sawahla and McMaster work in wonderful contrast yet unnerving symbiosis. The chorus played by Celine Rosa Tan, Takunda Kramer and Eden Vik add the dynamic backdrop of the world’s reactions with enthusiasm and harmony, though at times it is difficult to catch what is being said. This aspect could benefit from a slower pace and clearer delivery, particularly as the actors are always facing away from some audience members.
I really enjoyed this production. It is not delivered as a story, yet it succeeds in telling one. The format may be lost on some less social media savvy audience members as it relies heavily on ‘share to twitter/facebook/google buzz’ to deliver the context. Its sexual and religious politics are intricately woven throughout the blog-and-comment dialogue and though mesmerising, the delivery style may not appeal to all audiences. But the Ovalhouse is not intending to produce a season of comfortable, feel-good drama. On it’s 50th anniversary it is revisiting “fringe theatre .. as a defiant counterpoint to the prevalent culture” and Sour Lips serves to thrust popular social culture into a revealing light.