Brighton Fringe 2016
‘Echoes’ has a very relevant title – which we’ll come to – but it could equally well have been called ‘Reflections’. It’s about two women, born 175 years apart into very different societies, whose lives nevertheless bear startling similarities and parallels. Almost mirror images of one another.
Mirror images are identical, but they are also reversed. As the lights came up we saw two women appear out the darkness, equally tall, standing facing us on the all-black Rialto stage – the acting space completely bare except for a low bench and a box like a travelling trunk.
One woman all in white, a beautiful Victorian ball gown showing off her elegant figure, her neck and arms bare and with her dark hair put into small ringlets that frame her temples. She’s Tillie – she’s about eighteen, it’s 1841 and she’s from Ipswich.
Across the stage, the other one all in black, swathed in the robe and headscarf that denote an observant Muslim woman. We can see her whole face, her dark eyes, but we can only guess at her figure and her hair colour under the black cloth. She’s Samira – she’s about eighteen, it’s 2016 and she’s from Ipswich.
Opposites, but also parallels. Both women are well educated – Tillie comes from an upper-class family, she speaks French and Latin, and she’s fascinated by the study of insects. Samira is still at school, but her first or second generation immigrant family are upwardly mobile and she’s destined for University and a professional middle-class career.
And they are both idealists. They want to do good, to make the world better.
Victorian values dictate that Tillie must be married, but she’s bored by the dull burghers of Ipswich so she decides to travel to India. She will hopefully find herself a husband – “Lots of eligible bachelors in India” – and she can pursue her entomology with new species. Perhaps most importantly, she can do her duty of spreading the Gospel – the Word of God – and showing ‘the natives’ the values and benefits of the British Empire. “My Christian desire was to produce children for The Empire”
Samira is at the other end of that Imperial project, of course. The British abandoned the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of the Empire in 1947, and split off a Muslim Pakistan from Hindu India. Millions died during Partition – the enforced separation of populations. Samira’s Muslim, so her family would have been moved to Pakistan, and most likely came to England sometime after. To endure the racism – the catcalls of ‘Paki’ – but gradually to find their way in ‘the Mother country’.
First generation migrants just want to survive in their new surroundings, but Samira’s generation won’t put up with being second-class citizens. Samira’s chosen to be open about her Islamic faith, to live by the Word of The Prophet. She’s horrified by the anti-immigrant and Islamophobic outpourings of the British Press – “in the election four million people voted for Nigel Farage!” – and is drawn to the plight of Syrian refugees.
To find out more about them she looks on the Web, and is gradually drawn into the online world of Jihadist Islamic groups in Syria. Samira and her friend Begum are both dazzled that these young Syrian men are fighting oppression in the name of The Prophet, and the two decide to go off together to Syria, where Samira plans to marry a young fighter she’s never met, but who has courted her online via Skype.
Henry Naylor’s writing made these women real for us – their musings on what it means to be a woman, and their frustrations with the societies they found themselves in. But it was the actors themselves who truly brought them to life. Filipa Braganca made Samira very much a young woman of 2016 – little skips and snatches of rock lyrics, between outbursts of revulsion at the contents of the Daily Mail she has to sell at her weekend job in a newsagent’s. Braganca didn’t do any fanatical political analysis – she was completely believable as she beamed out a burning desire just to make the world better, to be part of a Movement. A Crusade, if you will. (irony intended)
Felicity Houlbrooke as Tillie had a more difficult job, and she was magnificent. She had to manage a nineteenth century English upper-class voice, with its clear diction and its snatches of French and Latin, which defined her background immediately. She held herself erect, moving as though she had spent years in floor-length dresses, as she related events on the voyage out to India – clearly a young woman born to help govern an Empire.
It didn’t work out as they’d planned, of course. In either case. Tillie got married to a Lieutenant and they were posted to Kandahar, in Afghanistan, protecting the North West Frontier of India from the Russians. Her British Empire turned out to be brutal, racist, misogynist and sexually predatory. Naylor’s script lets Tillie tell how the British destroyed the local agriculture, forcing Afghan farmers to grow opium, which was then sold into China at vast profit. Her Christianity got trampled, in the name of ‘Free Trade’.
Samira’s Syrian experience wasn’t much different. She got ‘married’ to a jihadist fighter in Raqqah who already had a first wife, a thirteen-year-old female slave, and a habit of watching beheading videos – before taking a stroll to look at the real heads stuck on spikes near the marketplace. The brutality and oppression of the Syrian women was almost total. When Samira asked why they have no voice, she was told – “because the men have the guns”.
Braganca and Houlbrooke didn’t act out roles as such – they simply related their stories to the audience. But they took on the voices and mannerisms of the men and women they were describing, and it was done so artfully and with such power that it seemed as if the stage was filled with a whole cast of Afghans and British.
Henry Naylor doesn’t go too deeply into the history, but it’s significant that he chose to set Tillie down in Kandahar. It was the rapacity of the British East India Company that led to a series of revolts by the Afghans, although in the nineteenth century the motivation was largely Nationalism. The Afghans fought the Russian invasion of the nineteen eighties for the same reasons – supported and supplied by the US, who felt they were fighting Godless Communism. But it was orphaned Afghan boys in refugee camp religious schools who became radicalised to Islam and created the Taliban. The Taliban, as a formal organisation, actually started in – Kandahar. Those same Jihadists have since diverged into insurgent groups like Al Quaida and ISIS in Syria, which pulls the threads of the story full circle.
Both Samira and Tillie became radicalised by their experiences. Radicalised in their own identity as women, and also on behalf of the injustice they saw meted out to the people around them. They each achieved a personal liberation, but at terrible cost. Naylor’s writing is subtle – he let his characters show us that most of the British women in Kandahar were as narrow-minded as the men, and that the women in Raqqah seem to acquiesce in their own oppression. “We do these things because we are acting on The Word”
This is where the show’s title achieves its meaning. In both situations, the beauty and simplicity of The Word – of Christ or of The Prophet – has been subverted by greed and the lust for power. As Samira says – “We hear the Divine voice, and we try to replicate it, but we can’t. We’re mortal, saddled with self-interest. The best we can do is produce an echo – a distant distortion of sound, blurred, imperfect. Repeated with flagging confidence, fading to nothing”.