We have short attention spans. It’s sad, but it’s a fact. Today’s bold story is tomorrow’s vague memory, as important issues get pushed to the back of our collective consciousness once their novelty is all used up.

No story better exemplifies this than the Syrian civil war. At first front page news, the conflict has crept slowly off the centre stage. And that got theatre director Benedict Power thinking: “I was really drawn into the story of the Syrian crisis. There is a Syrian girl at my daughter’s school, and by chance I got talking to her Dad at a kids’ party. He told me what was happening to his friends and family, and it made me realise how, even though the story is no longer so immediate, the problems are still incredible.”

It’s now four years since protesters first drew international attention to the oppressive Syrian leadership of Bashar al-Assad. But, unlike in some of the other Arab Spring countries, the Syrian people never fully threw off the yoke, and civil war ensued. “I thought how excruciatingly little there was I could do,” remembers Power. “I am not Syrian, and I can’t speak for Syrian people, but I decided what I could do was help them get their story heard.”

Telling stories is something Power certainly can do, and with great success. He directed the 24:7 Festival production War Stories (selected for HOME’s 2015 re:play festival), which explored the impact of WWI on British and Australian soldiers, and he has worked on other successful fringe efforts like The Bubbler and Real Life.

But the Syria story – now titled Spring Reign – was something a bit different. “It’s the first thing I have instigated entirely by myself, which made it a different challenge,” says Power. “I was interested in the idea of things being forgotten, things staying unsaid.”

Power, inspired by his research, got a group of actors together and began devising a piece. “It was the start of an idea. I could feel there was something there.” Others agreed, with Power and his team receiving Arts Council funding, while The Lowry also got involved with the project. He then brought in writer Rob Johnston, himself an established force on the fringe scene. “I’d worked with Rob before on War Stories, and I knew he’d be ideal for this.”

The team quickly gelled, with Power adding musicians to create an authentic Middle Eastern soundscape, something Power attributes to the help his team have received. “We’ve had so much help from Syrians and Syrian support groups. They have made this piece what it is,” he says. “I really hope people will engage with the story. It’s not about politics, or the present day. It is about people being brutalised, and what happens to their lives, the choices they are forced to make.”

Power is aware that telling such a story does put a strain on the audience. “People do get fatigued, overwhelmed by the suffering. That’s why we tuned out in the first place. It is understandable, but I think a piece like this can help refresh our memories.”

Part of the problem is that Syria seems like a far-off place, with a culture and political climate alien to our own. Power is addressing that not only by bringing culture into the production, as with the rich musical score, but also by using the frontline photographs of journalist Musa Chowdhury as a backdrop. “His images bring the conflict back to life and turn it from facts and figures into a human story again.”

The Lowry has also paired one of the performances with a panel discussion. “Paul Conroy, a journalist who has covered the story, will be there, along with people from Syria relief groups. It is a chance for people to find out the facts and to get answers to any questions the production raises.”

As I speak to Power, I can tell he has really enjoyed making this show, and the connections he has formed with Syrian groups through it. But when I ask what will stay with him once the show is over, his voice changes. “I know when I go to bed tonight I will wake up tomorrow knowing my house will still be here, my children still safe. The people of Syria don’t have that.”

Spring Reign is on at The Lowry on 19 and 20 May.

Background photo by Musa Chowdhury.

Andrew Anderson