views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

As Far As Isolation Goes
Via Zoom
9th October 2020


Publicity image for As Far As Isolation Goes

Photography © Basel Zaraa

For someone who can comfortably sit through 15 live shows in any one week, it's safe to say the global pandemic has left a cultural void in my life. I've tried my best to watch live-streamed plays and comedy gigs to demonstrate my unwavering appreciation and support for the arts. However, I deeply miss the emotion that comes from being there in person, sharing an experience in such a small space. Tiny theatre pubs, site-specific drama - that's what my soul craves. Watching people perform together on a screen so far removed from the action itself has been generally unsatisfying, as much as it pains me to admit it.

As Far As Isolation Goes is an adaptation of an earlier collaboration between live artist Tania El Khoury and musician and street artist Basel Zaraa, a Palestinian refugee from Syria. Redesigned in 2020 under lockdown to still admit only one audience member at a time, it's not quite the experience Zaraa wanted to impart, and he gently explains what would have happened had we been together in person. However, he still manages to reel me in with the powerful intimacy of this piece. Finally, after months of emptiness, I watch over Zoom, and I feel something.

The day before my tightly scheduled 15-minute slot, I receive some of the strangest pre-show instructions I've seen before, and desperately rummage through my flat to locate what I have been asked to prepare. In the old world, I would have simply popped out to the shops to gather what I needed. In the new world... I am less inclined to venture out. It's time to improvise.

As Zaraa leads me through As Far As Isolation Goes, I am struck by how intimidating requests can be in person. I've seen audience members rise beautifully to the sudden challenge of interaction before, I've seen others freeze and refuse to participate. I've also seen an even larger number awkwardly yield to peer pressure, despite clearly wishing they were anywhere else in that moment. Here, slamming the laptop lid shut is always an option. Comforted by this control, I continue and let some heavy symbolism literally wash over me. Whilst it's an odd experience, we're unreservedly connected, and for a moment, I'm lost to the performance and the digital medium is irrelevant. Well played, sir, well played.

Music produced by Peter Churchill and spoken word by Jazzar and Shamma Iqbal are woven into this intense encounter. Although the Arabic words are melodious and gentle, the English translation reveals a brutal reality, referencing pain and loss. When I focus on the meaning of the words rather than just the tone and the rhythm, I realise just how much distress is immediately beneath the surface. It embarrasses me that I was sucked in by the apparent beauty first, rather than empathising with the ordeals suffered.

As I hear of life in a refugee cell, I am struck by how I am listening whilst confined myself. However, I am stuck in a prison of privilege. I work here, I earn here, I learn here, everything I need or want can be delivered to my door. And it's my choice to not leave - to an extent - the isolation is of my own doing. There are similarities, but really, it's nothing alike. I know nothing. I hear of hardships that I have never endured and hopefully never will, and I am moved to the deepest of compassion. It hits me quickly and painfully, with a tension coiling in my stomach as I understand how lucky I am, even now with my life unravelling around me. This is what unconditional gratitude feels like.

Show me someone who hasn't had at least one meltdown during lockdown, and I'll show you a liar. This new online format taps into those now all-too universal feelings of isolation and mourning to help us relate to Zaraa's incredible journey. Oh, I still desperately miss the fringe in person, but this performance cleverly takes the new normal and uses it as a tool to enhance the storytelling, rather than a hindrance.

Like the end of a hypnotism, suddenly, I'm back in the room, saying goodbye to Zaraa. "It will wash off," he assures me.

Hours later, I keep glancing at the physical reminder that proves I was there. Although 15 minutes is short enough to be quickly forgotten, I haven't forgotten, and I don't want to. This is a powerful, carefully-crafted, extraordinary piece of art, adapted perfectly for the new normal.

As Far As Isolation Goes opened on 9th October and runs until 11th October, as part of Journeys Festival International. Tickets for this show are sold out, but a waitlist is in operation, and the festival continues until 18th October 2020.

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