When you come across a piece of theatre like this, you find yourself describing it as funny, imaginative, inventive and sad. And yet none of these words quite do justice to the 55 minutes spent in a tent with Norwegian theatre company, New International Encounter. While it was absolutely all of these things, the actors transport you across land and sea to of Syria – the city of Aleppo, to be precise.
We Come From Far Far Away tells the tale of two brothers who flee civil war and the bombings in Aleppo. They choose to head for Oslo, for they’ve been told they’ll be safe there. They first manage to get over the border, then they squeeze into a van, and eventually they find themselves by the sea. They buy a place on a boat and set sail.
Again, words feel inadequate but trying to do justice to a journey more harrowing than most of us can imagine seems like an impossible task. But it’s clear from the moment that you’re presented with the church-hall-sized tepee – accompanied by two musicians serenading your arrival – that you’re in for something pretty special. Squished into the tepee on padded mats, the story unfolds.
Iva Moberg is riveting as Abdullah, the adventurer who ends up seeing a very bad, bad thing. And Marina Popovic is a brilliantly versatile foil. Václav Kalivoda, Robert Orr and an array of instruments – even a xylophone makes an appearance – add atmosphere, creating a surprisingly strong sense of place, along with occasional perfectly placed comic turns. They also demonstrate their acting skills in the roles of two darkly sinister policemen.
This is first and foremost a show for children, and though they commonly perform at schools, the group is said to have played to 135 adult audiences at the current count. As captivating as the story is, as an adult spectator it is just as lovely to enjoy the theatre company’s attempts to help their young audience make sense of acts and circumstances that are impossible for even supposed grown-ups to comprehend.
The show was developed through workshops and subsequent conversations with young refugees from Syria and Afghanistan aged 13 to 18 in Hvalstad Transittmottak, an asylum centre in Norway. A Q&A session at the end saw someone (who I’m pretty sure was Lyn Gardner) ask whether the company felt it was OK to appropriate these stories and turn them into theatre. And they explained that the stories had been a corollary to the initial workshop. They explained the play they were planning to produce to the young people they spoke to. And one of their interviewees, on seeing the final play, said he wanted to them to find bigger audiences – to get a bigger tepee – so more people find out more about the real people behind the media frenzy.
Dwelling on the marvel of the puppetry, the lighting, the brilliant use of the (other) tent, the sound effects, and even the use of movement, risks spoiling the delight of discovering it for yourself. So I won’t. Above all, this is a harrowing and heartbreaking tale of a crisis that isn’t happening nearly as far away as we think.
The last question of the evening came from a little girl. Maybe she was 6. The actors had used puppets to depict the chaos in Aleppo from which the boys ran. “Was the story about death a real folk story?” she asked. A small piece of my heart crumbled.