FringeReview UK 2017
Naylah Ahmed’s Ready or Not reaches the Arcola’s Studio 2. Kali Theatre’s artistic director Helena Bell brings terror to a domestic interior Sophia Lowell-Smith constructs. It’s part inset for Daniel Denton’s wall-video presenting a voice-over with visuals of a text conversation; all Chris Drohan’s sound is wedded to it. Till April 29th.
Kali Theatre’s artistic director Helena Bell brings Naylah Ahmed’s Ready or Not to the Arcola’s Studio 2. Just as post 9/11 paranoia builds to new highs it visits the domestic interior Sophia Lowell-Smith constructs – or rather a young Muslim finds it visits him. It’s part naturalist drawing-room, part inset for Daniel Denton’s wall-video presenting a voice-over with dancing, fading words; visuals of a text conversation; finally a window. Grating at first, it earns its keep; all Chris Drohan’s sound is wedded to it.
Ahmed’s neat inversion of terrorist tropes is inspired. Adam Karim’s Yusuf comes knocking with a clipboard about banning drones. Joan Blackham’s Pat tries to lay him out with a bat, he knocks himself out fleeing. Bound to a chair, Oxtail-soup-splattered, water-boarded in a washing-up bowl, Yusuf’s bewilderment is met with evasiveness and flashes of compassion: the soup was lukewarm he points out, not scalding; Patricia fetches his inhaler. Captors are prone to it.
Quite why sixty-something Pat kidnaps Yusuf emerges in both Pat’s disjunct jibes – ‘you’re a turban away from Bin Laden’, or assuming he knows the Koran – and voiceovers, letters home from Pat’s son, a sergeant in Afghanistan. He’s not happy with his mother or himself. Added to these evasions Pat’s endless fiddling with social media conversing with a U. S. serviceman, and cuttings of atrocities, the extent of Pat’s retreat clears itself.
She, like some Western leaders and far-right citizens, commits acts of terror. Some words obliviously awaken killers; some words kill. Had one MEP died in a helicopter crash, would one MP later not have died? We can’t know for certain. However Ahmed shows Pat’s extreme is merely that of our sensing that expressing liberal opinions in much of the UK is now dangerous. We’re the drones now.
The first act’s expository skirmishes tell us little of Yusuf, beyond British normality. Sparring with Patricia he digs out assumptions, discovering her son’s profession. Yusuf’s need for a pee ‘it wasn’t much’ Pat retorts taking the bucket, defines limits of degradation. Pat’s primary-school teacher credentials establish a common language of abuse.
Blackham fleshes out Pat’s literally crazed compartmentalising with a cleverly collapsed school ma’am-ism. Karim humanizes articulate Yusuf, fearfulness flecked with right-minded anger calling Pat a crazy cow and cat-person after being ducked. He’s an activist, and if their manicured exchanges occasionally border on credibility, these lay mines for the second act.
It’s a stand-off happily interrupted by an insistent caller: Pat’s son’s partner Holly. We realize why it’s a singular day. The sergeant’s returning. Yusuf bundled away down cellar steps the most painfully intimate scenes follow in the second act, where this drama ignites. Blackham and Rickman explode slowly in ferocious duettings, a feature of this work, yet never so powerfully as with these two white British women counter-accusing. The clue lies in the drama’s title, games where Patricia tried to evade her young son altogether. It bears on an action thousands of miles away. This play-within-a-play convinces more than the surrounding chiller. The intimacy, use of personal artefacts has the stamp of brilliance on it.
Natasha Rickman’s Holly is bright, rational, another articulate being overturning traditional class-assumptions of NCO partners. Recalling recently-pardoned Sergeant Blackman and his media-experienced wife furnishes a catching echo in this drama, for this sergeant admits to something lurking in his last letter, snuck in his old cardigan his mother now wears – and Holly wants back. Consequences of this letter, what happens to it, form the crux.
The volte-face allowing Yusuf to turn tables, able to exercise his conscience is both powerful and a little contrived: would Yusuf act in such a way, even provoked? The denouement’s another surprise. Unlike Pat in particular, one feels Yusuf’s rarely given autonomy as a character, or as a destiny.
Clearly this play over-elaborates in the first act to launch the great power of the second. Even so, the first half might be pared. All three actors humanize their characters, Blackham in particular striking a leaden numbness in Pat that irradiates her flaws just as the palimpsests of David Jones-style calligraphy – her son’s writings – scumble across the video (Jones too was a soldier). Ahmed’s writing for both women in particular makes you wonder what life, not Ahmed, will do with them. It’s a tribute to a dramatist who dares, and to a sense that this drama has another within it, signalling to be let out.