Remember the Gay Girl in Damascus? A blog with that suggestive name went viral during last year’s Arab Spring, only to be outed as a hoax — or should we say a fantasy — by its panicked author, a 40-year-old American PhD student in Edinburgh called Tom.
This news item is the premise for Sour Lips, one of various plays commissioned to celebrate Ovalhouse theatre’s 50th birthday. And what a promising premise — drenched in suspense, irony and bang-up-to-date ethical questions. What are the rights and wrongs of the internet? Can anyone be held responsible for a social-media phenomenon? It also ticks Ovalhouse’s usual boxes. This little theatre, in an old gym next to Oval tube station and opposite the famous cricket ground, specialises in political theatre, particularly anything with a gay or ethnic-minority agenda.
Omar El-Khairy’s play tackles the subject using two devices. First, he separates Tom (convincingly played by Simon Darwen) from the ‘gay girl in Damascus’ he invents, Amina Arraf (an equally excellent Lara Sawalha). The play then becomes, among other things, the story of their romance, Pygmalion-like. He creates her, only to find that she takes on a life of her own — an independence he begrudges and ultimately has to quash. This approach allows El-Khairy to play up one delicious irony of the situation, which is that a blog the liberal West took as evidence of female and gay emancipation was actually the creation — indeed, the lesbian fantasy — of a straight man. In perhaps the play’s most successful scene, Amina gets cosy with a girl who mouths lines scripted and spoken by Tom.
The second device is a Greek chorus of three actors, whose main job is to act out the story’s social context. They provide background bustle when Amina is kidnapped by security forces (as Tom imagines); they sing and beat-box linking music between scenes; they broadcast news announcements in various languages; perhaps most importantly, they like, retweet and comment on her posts.
These two devices propel the play entertainingly enough towards its inevitable conclusion in Tom’s shame and apology. Our main quibble was that it could have been more dramatic, and perhaps also more coherent in articulating the issues at stake.
There was perhaps too much telling, too little showing. Another obvious irony of the story — that social media was supposed to be a weapon of truth in a world of totalitarian propaganda but here was used as a vehicle of mass deception — does not really come across. The related question of culpability is not explored very deeply. Tom apologises, but is he really responsible for a media hype created by Western liberals — suckers as we are for an uplifting story?
There was much to reflect on here. But it’s by no means the definitive account of this modern fairy-tale.
Sour Lips is playing at Ovalhouse Theatre until 16 February