“Borders,” we’re told in the program, was the most “decorated play” at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and will have been performed on five continents by the end of 2018. The play was “inspired…by meetings with refugees,” playwright Henry Naylor writes, and attempts both to “put a human face” on the refugee crisis, and to “satirize the lackluster Western response.”
All of this builds up expectations that were for me misleading. “Borders,” which is on stage at NYTW Next Door through July 22, is a small, spare, sometimes poignant but not especially enlightening play that alternates monologues by two characters, a British photographer and a young Syrian woman.
Sebastian Nightingale (Graham O’Mara) begins his story when he was age 21 fresh out of college, and traveled to a troubled spot with the aim of photographing the poor and suffering and thereby changing the world. But he couldn’t make any money doing this – no publication was interested – until he accompanied a well-known print journalist for an interview with a little-known local warlord named Osama bin Laden. When the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center occurred a few years later, and bin Laden was identified as its mastermind, Sebastian’s photograph of him became iconic, and Sebastian himself became a celebrity. He was suddenly in demand as a photographer… of other celebrities. He had spent years as a wealthy and comfortable celebrity photographer, when he took on an assignment that harkened back to the original purpose of his occupation — he agreed to photograph a UN fact-finding mission aboard a patrol boat…but only because Angelina Jolie was involved.
He tells this story in pieces, standing under a light in an otherwise darkened stage (with no set), each segment interrupting and interrupted by the seemingly unconnected monologues by a woman (Avital Lvova.) who asks simply to be called Nameless. (“Only the powerful have names.”) She begins her story when she was six years old and drawing a picture of Simba the orphaned lion cub under the admiring eyes of her father in a playground. Syrian secret police suddenly attacked her father, who urged her to run. Her father’s murder is just the first of the horrors under the Assad regime. Nameless tells us she used her developing talents as an artist to register her protest through anti-Assad graffiti, an act of bravery, since those caught committing this crime are savagely punished.
There is a deliberate discord between the largely comic tone of Sebastian’s anecdotes and the largely tragic tone in what Nameless says. The clash in tones is surely meant to highlight how trivial Western concerns can feel, but all the name-dropping threatens to make the play itself feel half trivial. At times, though, the juxtapositions can be effective. Both characters are artists struggling to keep to the convictions under very different circumstances. While Sebastian talks about his second marriage to a “Sugarbabe,” Nameless describes her almost accidental, difficult relationship with fellow dissident Rifat, driving home the impossibility of normal family life. It is what convinces Nameless to leave Syria
But it is only within the last couple of minutes of the 70-minute play that the two stories converge.
At its best, the two performers of “Borders” tell some vivid anecdotes, especially when Nameless details the cruelties of life under Assad. At its worst, the two characters too often speak in a pseudo-poetic diction: A flooded valley is “trembling with menace and liquid fury,” Sebastian tells us; “I must lose my city, my canvas,” Nameless says. “No more, my hand liquid on the walls.” That both can speak this way makes it harder for us to accept them as distinct and independent individuals come to life rather than creatures of the playwright’s imagination.
When her father is killed, Nameless declares herself at age six “crossing the border from childhood to adulthood.” There are several such metaphorical borders crossed in “Borders,” and it is a useful and compelling metaphor. But there is little in “Borders” that is directly about the literal crossing of borders – about the worldwide refugee crisis. The playwright is certainly correct when he says in the program that there has not been enough attention paid to it in the press or in the arts. “Borders” is a beginning.
written by Henry Naylor,
directed by Michael Cabot with Louise Skaaning
Lighting design by Nick Houfek
Cast; Avital Lvova (Nameless), Graham O’Mara (Sebastian Nightingale)
Running time: 70 minutes with no intermission
Borders is running through July 22, 2018