In 2010, prior to the escalation of civil war in Syria, actor and writer Cat Commander spent months visiting the country, along with many of its Levant neighbours. Her one-person show, Before the Spring, serves as tribute to a nation whose beauty and spirit remains indelibly imprinted in her heart.
The recent unrest in Syria presents to the public as yet another violent outbreak in a region perpetually wracked by bloodshed, as more images of destruction reach our screens from yet another Middle Eastern nation. According to Prime Minister Abbott, Syria’s civil turmoil is little more than “baddies versus baddies”, but what is often overlooked from our comfortable vantage here in Australia are the stories of the people – the passionate, vibrant citizens of these areas – as they try and go about their lives amidst persistent struggles for power.
Commander spent six months travelling through the region in 2010, and found it beautiful, but fraught. Syria in particular haunted her with its beauty and left her charmed by the generosity of its people. “I had originally planned to write something as a response to the whole journey,” Commander says, “but I couldn’t keep my mind away from Syria and the experiences I had there.”
What resonated greatly with her was how similar the lives of people in the Middle East can be to those in secular nations such as Australia. “When we see images on the news of cities that have been destroyed, children left orphaned, or men and women having been tortured, they have been living lives just like our own,” she says. “Commuting to work, hanging out in cafes, watching movies… these are really very cosmopolitan cities.”
Before the Spring takes the shape of a series of poetically narrated flashbacks that interleaves the story of a young Australian woman and a Syrian taxi-driver, Abu Ahmed. Set amidst the souks and bath-houses of Syria and the streets of Fitzroy, it is confessional in tone and is bolstered by the presence of Commander’s evocative songs, telling a story of both political and personal revolution. Her hope is that in personalizing a remote terrain, she can reflect upon the prospect that the inner geography of different cultures may not be so alien to one another after all.
“At the heart of Before the Spring,’ Commander says, ‘is the universal desire of human beings to be loved and to exist in a world free from danger.”
The show has evolved organically from its first iteration at the Perth Fringe Festival of 2011, though according to Commander that evolution has occurred “more in the execution than the text itself”; despite the developments of the Arab Spring that occurred subsequent to her return to Australia. “I think I was really happy with the world that the text created and the way the story unfolded,” she says, “but I wanted the soundscape and visual imagery to better reflect the internal worlds of the characters in the script.” In this, she has been ably assisted by Marissa Bennett and Greg Carroll, who helped her “look past my vision, to what the piece could be.”
Syria, one of the birthplaces of agriculture, has ever been a prize for emperors and warmongers. For Commander, Before the Spring is ultimately a tribute to a country that is now, once more, forever changed.
“I hope people are able to get a sense of what a vibrant and lovely place Syria was before the Arab Spring,” she reflects, “and that as a result they can welcome any opportunity we have as a country to help the people who are suffering because of it.”
Before the Spring will be showing for the first time in Melbourne as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival in Upstairs at Errol’s, between September 28th-October 5th. Visit http://beforethespring.com for booking details.