Edinburgh Fringe 2015
New play by Fringe First winner Henry Naylor explores the experiences of two seventeen year old women, born 175 years apart. Both would build empires; both would meet tragedy.
The ‘echoes’ of this play, written, co-directed and produced by Henry Naylor, resound in the compelling interlacing monologues of two seventeen year old British women from Ipswich. Under pressure from her father and an older female socialite, Tillie, an educated and intelligent young Victorian, marries a British lieutenant and moves with him to a British garrison in Afghanistan. Samira, also seventeen, educated and from Ipswich, travels to Syria in the present day to marry an ISIS fighter, against the wishes and without the knowledge of her parents but encouraged and accompanied by her friend. These two stories are paralleled across different centuries and religions, through the women’s experiences in relation to men, power and colonial subjugation.
The concept of this play is innovative and taboo-breaking in that it gives voice to a young ‘jihadi bride’ and her reasons for going to Syria – and they seem quite understandable when we view the world around her from her perspective. It helps that Samira has some very funny lines. The play is also original in presenting us with this particular pairing and allowing us to draw comparisons between their stories.
There are shades of Caryl Churchill’s ‘Cloud Nine’ in the Victorian/contemporary shifts and explorations of sexuality and colonisation, but whereas Churchill’s 1980’s play moves from secrecy and hypocrisy towards sexual openness and acceptance (if not freedom from the past), Naylor’s play highlights how little the power and gender dynamic has changed since Victorian times, at least in some contexts. There is plenty of food for thought here.
Naylor’s dialogue is layered, well-paced and sometimes very funny, which is not only necessary but skilfully achieved in a play with very dark subject matter. For example the comical argument about the white and gold or blue and black dress brings an up-to-date authenticity to Samira’s story, and is also an accessible metaphor for seeing things from different perspectives.
Tillie’s early anecdote about the lieutenant crushing the maggot and her own negative response also introduces us, through metaphor, to the bigger story that she will tell.
Henry Naylor knows how to structure and pace a good story. The co-director is Emma Buttler and between them, they choreograph the physical distance and proximity of the two actors in such a way that they become increasingly closer more often and by the end of the play you almost feel they are each other’s confidantes.
Filipa Braganca brings Samira sympathetically to life as a shyly flirtatious girl-next-door character with her Saturday job at WH Smith’s and her adventurous spirit, easily influenced by her more politically aware friend. Braganca also portrays Samira’s friend so vividly that you almost expect to find her name in the credits.
Felicity Houlbrooke tells Tillie’s story with all the pent-up, intense energy of someone whose intelligent voice has been silenced for too long.
These female characters are subject to disrespect, subjugation and violence from their husbands. They also show great courage in standing up for what they believe in, but there there could perhaps be more suggestion of moral complexity in the male characters, so we are not just presented with a picture of relatively ‘good’ women and irredeemably ‘bad’ men. This could make the relationships more complex and raise further interesting questions.
The ‘message’ of the play could be left more for the audience to decide, rather than including the short passage towards the end of the play when the two women seem to do this.
This play is bold and innovative with a sharp, multi-layered script and performances that expertly convey two very different characters going through similar experiences in relation to their gender in a context of male violence and colonialism. It deserves to be seen and will prompt some important and much-needed discussions pertinent to today’s world. I could hear some of these already beginning as the packed and appreciative audience left the auditorium.