FringeReview UK 2016
Cuttin’ It premieres at the Young Vic before going on tour, taking in Birmingham before the Royal Court which co-produces this harrowing two-hander. Charlene James won the George Divine Award for Most Promising Playwright 2015, and Cuttin’ It the Alfred Fagan Award for Best Play.
Charlene James’ multiple award-winning play Cuttin’ It premieres at the Young Vic before going on tour, taking in the Royal Court which co-produces this harrowing two-hander.
The literally excruciating multiple pun in the title, embedding a challenge on the play’s strength, cuts equally horribly to the chase on our assumptions about Feminine Genital Mutilation (FHM). James addresses here stereotypes shrugged by British people inside or outside the communities at risk: specifically Somali and by inference James’ native Birmingham.
Adelayo Adelayo and Tsion Habte portray two fifteen-year-old schoolgirls, Muna and Iqra. Muna’s lived in the UK since she was three, confident, lippy wielding a British accent and teen attitudes; her narratives – missing the bus, her one early school arrival – all comically normalising to offset the scrape of history.
Iqra’s endured a massacre, resident only since she was ten, sounding, dressing more recognizably Somali. Both tell back-stories invoking others’ conversations, childhood traumas.
Nevertheless, they were both ‘cut’ – mutilated – aged seven; Muna already resident in the UK returning to Somalia for something so traumatic she’s terrified her younger sister will undergo it too.
So she’s relieved to discover by confronting her mother – in English, her mother only talks Somali back – there’ll be no flight to Somalia. Muna’s colonising of English invokes a cultural imperative her mother refuses, using the traditionally evasive tool of speaking her own language only: a reflex of any oppressed minority. This detail of naturalisation superbly sketches their relationship and the dramatic irony of Muna’s using only a western tongue to communicate. It telegraphs too the dramatist James is becoming. She also neatly balances monologues and reported speeches with brief dialogues between Muna and Iqra framed within them.
Muna’s naturally easier to identify with: Iqra’s otherness is cleverly lensed through her. Iqra’s monologues frame Muna’s. We immediately empathize with Iqra’s witness of her brothers’ and mother’s murder and later, Muna’s awe. The latter befriends her, sharing an earpiece then lending an iPod. Suddenly overcome by the smell of Somali sweets Iqra offers she flees.
Her later visit to Iqra however isn’t welcome; Muna recalls where that smell came from before fainting. Two girls confront each other across a cultural divide physically etched within themselves – Muna’s monologues invoke terrible bodily consequences and her body’s always the coalmine canary scenting danger before her conscious mind does. These aches tear at any friendship with complicities invoked and refused. It’s now a terrible race.
James brilliantly separates the assumptions and traumas of her two protagonists, and though her sympathies and ours reside with the westernised Muna there’s plenty for the tragic figure of Iqra too, though seventy-five minutes doesn’t allow for an exploration of her own cultural shift from her terror aged seven to eight years on. We infer it as a given, since James is understandably keen in this largely narrative-based play not to load it further.
Adelayo Adelayo is funny, confiding, tragically aware at the right moments, suddenly vulnerable in the way an apparently confident fifteen-year-old can be, with an access of fury that at key points elicits laughter and at others, heartbreak.
Tsion Habte making her debut here conveys an inwardness torn between sympathy for those she sees suffering – whether in Somalia or the UK – and an underlying sense of how those traumatised by war and blast-wounded communities can transmit their wounds. Should a mother or relative let a girl live uncut, they expose their own deprivation and trauma as needless. For many that’s too terrible a self-realisation: such women perpetuate suffering to validate their pain. James too conveys the fragility of what could be a mutually supportive perhaps lifelong friendship, and what patriarchy does to it.
Gbolohan Obisean directs leanly with great emphasis on voice through minimal distraction. Joanna Scotcher’s grey stepped set resembles a Mayan temple with a central stairwell down, multi-purpose for platforming of all kinds. But in a trick of Azusa Ono’s lighting, we discover what those steps contain: Mayan temples aren’t so far from it.
A superb empathic analysis of FGM, James most of all reaches out to those perpetrating it, the key act rendering this drama more than dramatically but culturally vital.