By Venetia Rainey and Li-mei Hoang
LONDON, July 20 (Reuters) - Harrowing first-person accounts of life and violent death from Syrians during their now 16-month-old uprising provide the dialogue for a new play, which opened in London this week.
Based on hundreds of hours of interviews conducted undercover by 26-year-old director Zoe Lafferty and two British journalists, "The Fear of Breathing" immerses the audience in the everyday lives of Syrians caught up in the bloodshed of the revolt against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.
"People are a million different things and theatre allows all of that to be encompassed. This piece allows a Western audience to relate to what is going on," Lafferty told Reuters.
The play follows the experiences of Syrians involved in the conflict which has killed more than 17,000 people, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group.
A few torn posters of the Syrian president are plastered on the set and in the darkness, flashed up on screens are the words: "The stories are true. The characters are real people. The words spoken verbatim".
Quataba, a fresh-faced student and activist, is shown tortured and beaten in prison for carrying videos supporting the uprising against Assad's rule.
Muhummad, a Sunni soldier, recounts the discrimination he encounters in Assad's army and the civilians he witnessed killed at peaceful protests.
Sunni Muslims make up the majority of the Syrian population, while Assad is from the country's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, adding a religious dimension to the fighting.
"Of course it's heavy but it's also fun. There are laughs and jokes, exciting and positive moments," Lafferty said.
"One of our characters starts off telling us about his love of Manchester United (soccer club) and finishes with his house being bombed."
The Syrian government's ban on foreign journalists meant that Lafferty along with the Daily Telegraph's Ruth Sherlock and BBC's Paul Wood, both currently Syria correspondents, had to move covertly around the country spending a total of seven weeks collecting the material for the play.
The piece has particular relevance now that Syria's capital Damascus has seen intense fighting for the first time since unrest began in March 2011, prompting suggestions that the government's control of the country is slipping faster than predicted.
Giving a largely revolutionary perspective, some of the stories touch on the conflict's most sensitive issue: Syria's sectarian fault lines.
"It's always in the background in Syria, but faced with a television camera, or even just someone writing in a notebook, people don't want to address it directly. Or if they do, they say what they feel they are expected to say to foreigners," explained BBC's Wood.
"That was why these meandering late night conversations were so valuable, the recorder placed on the floor in the middle of the group, but soon forgotten.
"After a while, in the normal back and forth of discussion, people began to say what they really thought."
The performance includes interviews, stories and filmed footage and will run until Aug. 11 at the Finsborough Theatre in west London. (Reporting by Venetia Rainey and Li-mei Hoang, editing by Paul Casciato)