Writer: Rob Johnston
Producer/Director: Benedict Power
Composer/Musician: Chris Davies
Designer: Meriel Pym
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Benedict Power’s concept is a bold one, with great artistic potential to go with an important moral and political message – and all in support of a relief effort desperately in need. He unites a fictional story of domestic life in the war-torn city of Aleppo with powerful documentary photography and video and an evocative musical score to raise awareness of the humanitarian crisis (with the charities Rethink Rebuild Society and Syria Relief) and to create an evening of drama which confronts despair and ends with a positive message, movingly delivered by Rhian McLean.
Spring Reign very nearly realises this ambitious intent. The photographs of Musa Chowdhury, Daniel Leal-Olivas and Matthew Norman are striking images of civilian life in a war zone with something of an emphasis of photographs of children – for good reason, given that the two charities are working to set up a school on the outskirts of Aleppo. The major piece of video is genuinely shocking and dramatically appropriate. Chris Davies, playing a huge range of instruments, intensifies the experience of the photographs and also the monologues that break up the main action, both political and poetic. And, despite working on a cramped and cluttered set on the small acting area of the Harrogate Studio, the shifts are managed slickly and professionally.
Rob Johnston worked with Syrian refugees and learned from their experiences in writing a script that reeks of authenticity in presenting the Aleppo crisis as not just death and destruction in a war zone (though it is that, of course), but also a loss of domesticity, the death of a much-loved city that was a way of life. Salah (Marlon Solomon) and Aisha (Rhian McLean) are a well-educated, liberal-minded youngish couple who have two Westerners staying with them: Mark (Garth Williams), a press photographer looking for commissions elsewhere in Syria, and Claire (Sophia Hatfield), a former teacher who has lived in Aleppo for four years and whose Syrian fiancé is missing, presumed dead.
Tragedy stalks their lives, but much is about routine: getting food, how many of Aisha’s informal basement school pupils will turn up, memories of their daughter now sent to safety, etc. More major shifts include their having to leave their house when that part of the city falls to government forces and Mark going off on assignment.
The scenes between the Syrian couple are very convincingly written and acted, with Solomon effectively charting the character’s increased bitterness and determination to fight back and McLean’s ironic confidence fading with time. Many of the solo monologues are beautifully written, with Solomon, especially, excelling in delivery. The writing and performance are more uneven in more formulaic scenes debating the motivation of press photographers or why the Westerners don’t leave. Williams is believable as the photographer, but the script calls for him to justify himself a bit too often, and Hatfield, over-emphatic at first, takes time to get to the heart of the character.
However, when Spring Reign unites the economy or poetry of words, deep felt acting, vivid and appalling images and the atmospheric sounds of Middle Eastern music, it is a very striking performance with a powerful message.
Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed