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David Sandison

Interview with theatre-maker Corinne Jaber

4 April 2014 Charlie Kenber

“To imagine that theatre will change anything is just a silly dream…but at least for a moment people have the possibility to be aware of something for a small second.”

We caught up with Corinne Jaber about Oh My Sweet Land, a play conceived by and starring her, opening at the Young Vic on 9th April…

London Calling: Where did the idea behind the project come from?

Corinne Jaber: At the beginning I wanted, I needed, to do something about Syria. My first idea was to do a big project with lots of actors and initially some dancers but I just couldn’t get the money together. So I thought well if that’s not possible I’ll just try and do something on my own.

A very renowned theatre in Switzerland – the Théâtre de Vidy – jumped in and said they were going to produce it. The more I worked the less I had: I had neither writer nor director; it was just me and this idea. Knowing that something had to be done.

The idea was to find a way to talk about Syria avoiding the horror. I don’t mean not talking about the horror – the play does – but not to dwell on it. To do something different from newspaper stories: to talk about people. That was really the way in, and then when I met with David Lan in London he suggested Amir Nizar Zuabi, a Palestinian writer and director. I read his plays and was thrilled. He really connected with the project straight away. I went to Lebanon to talk to refugees and interview them, and then I met up with Amir in Jordan.

It’s been a long journey, but a very fascinating journey.

LC: Clearly the subject matter is very tough – how do go about framing this for the audience?

CJ: Well it is tough, because you can’t avoid the toughness. It’s not a comedy. The play is the story of a woman who has fallen in love and reconnected with Syria. She spends her time obsessively cooking one Syrian dish, and I am actually cooking on stage, so there is a dish, even though no-one really feels like eating at the end of this play!

So there’s the centrality of food and the smells and something that everything can connect to. In a way it takes away a bit of the toughness and adds something else more human, so I think the show becomes bearable.

LC: Who do you think the show will appeal to?

CJ: I don’t know, I mean it’s not a children’s show! It’s great doing it in London – I think there’s a very curious audience, and the Young Vic is a very vibrant place.

Anybody who is in anyway interested in what state the world is in. Although Syria is far away it’s terribly close in some ways.

LC: What is the London audience like?

CJ: People are not wildly outgoing here. It’s not a Latin audience like in France. But it’s a very appreciative audience. Theatre work is a trade, a craft, and it’s dealt with in that way. In France it’s much more an art – it’s not as down-to-earth as it can be here. It’s also incredibly professional in London. So there’s a whole different way of doing theatre which is no bullshitting. You get on with it, which is very different from the French way.

LC: You’ve worked in Afghanistan before – what is it that draws you to stories about warring or troubled parts of the world?

CJ: It’s a good question, I’ve been asking myself that. I was in Afghanistan in 2006, it was still very fragile but it’s much more fragile now. Maybe the Afghan journey is a big detour to come to Syria which concerns me more because I’m half-Syrian. I’m not particularly interested in war zones, it’s not that that I’m looking for, but I do feel there are things happening in this world today that we just need to talk about, and Syria is one of them.

It’s not a world we can live in saying ‘I just close my shutters and get on with my life in any way I can’. We can’t do that anymore, and I know I did that when I was young.

Theatre’s not going to change anything. To imagine that theatre will change anything is just a silly dream. It won’t change anything but at least for a moment people have the possibility to be aware of something for a small second.

LC: On a personal level has the show reconnected you with Syria and your own background there?

CJ: It has because I was never brought up as a Syrian. It’s a difficult thing because you get involved in so many stories and you get attached to these people, and then there’s moments where you have to put that all aside and get on with your life, because it’s so immense, and it’s so extraordinarily sad. Not particularly my own family because we’re all somewhere else now, but the people who are there and are trying to survive and trying to exist.

Oh My Sweet Land is on at the Young Vic from 9th April until 3rd May. Tickets from £10, available here.

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