Aaliyah (After Antigone)
Freedom Studios, in association with CARBON: Imagineering
Impact Hub Bradford
The clash of personal, divine and state-dictated moral codes which drives the dramatic debate of Sophocles’ Antigone is perpetually ripe for reinvention. Kamal Kaan’s new script for Freedom Studios holds numerous echoes of Kamila Shamsie’s superb 2017 novel Home Fire in its resituation of the Greek tragedy among British Muslims facing prejudice, isolation and victimisation in a country that tells them to perform obedience to the ‘British way of life’ or face being deported.
While Shamsie’s novel travels across the globe, Kaan’s play takes a more classical form in focusing the action on a single setting, the local authority offices in Bradford in which sisters Aaliyah (Halema Hussain) and Imani (Lydia Hasoon) work a late-night shift. We learn that their brother, Syeed, is to be deported under the direct orders of the Home Secretary, Parveen Parvaiz (Siddiqua Akhtar).
Aaliyah takes to the streets to protest, building a social media following as the ‘Niqabi Ninja’ and attracting the wrath of Parvaiz. As it happens, Aaliyah is recently married to Hussain (Jag Sanghera), who (much like in Shamsie’s novel) is the Home Secretary’s son. As the stand-in for the King Creon figure in Sophocles’ play, Parvaiz appears only via screen, turning up at key moments to make proclamations informing the sisters (and us) of the progression of Syeed’s case, and to debate the ethics of the case via a video call with her daughter-in-law. Ultimately, Parvaiz uses Syeed’s extradition as a bargaining chip to try to quell Aaliyah’s activism, trumpeting the ‘right to free speech’ while curtailing the right to protest and forcing adherence to a generic and watery set of ‘British values’: Parvaiz declares ‘if you’re not with us, then you’re against us’.
I joined the show via the livestream, which promised five different camera angles on the actors, and the chance to "get up close and personal to them" with an "exciting new app" that "pushes at the limits of what is possible with new technologies for live events". However, there was nothing that I could see to differentiate this from any number of Zoom performances over the past couple of years; there is no option to change camera angles yourself, and the technology in other ways was somewhat clunky. Echoing sound when video was played in the venue, and glimpses of the media player software as supposedly live in-fiction footage was cued up, broke the illusion and spoke of an unfortunate lack of polish.
The performances are solid enough, particularly in the moments where Aaliyah (Halema Hussain) and Imani (Lydia Hasoon) speak directly to camera as though to their online following. But elsewhere, the actors’ delivery, via the stream, comes across as overly declamatory, and Alex Chisholm and Dermot Daly’s direction struggles to activate the space or find ways of creating theatrically interesting stage pictures in the limited office setting.
Towards the end, Miriam Nabarro’s design reframes the performance space with a stark shift in lighting, and after the plain neon semi-realism of the first three-quarters of the piece, this is welcome. But the awkward exposition and repetitions of the script (off-stage phone calls carry a burden of storytelling early on, and the local postcode, ‘BD3’, is cited repeatedly, for instance) left my mind drifting somewhat, in what is a relatively short play.
So ultimately, all the ingredients are present for a timely deployment of ancient myth in a contemporary setting. But if your interest is piqued, I’d recommend seeking out Shamsie’s book rather than this production.
Reviewer: Mark Smith