Gilded Balloon / Pipeline productions
Gilded Balloon Teviot
The latest play in Henry Naylor’s Middle East trilogy is Angel, focusing on the courageous struggles of Rehana (Filipa Braganca) whose family lived in the rural town of Kobane caught up in the shocking Syrian civil war.
Angel elaborates on a story promoted by Kurdish forces keen to win international support for weapons and Kurdish independence.
It was constructed around a photograph of a young woman in a military uniform, her hair uncovered, her smile shy but slightly mischievous. The name Rehana was added later as was the claim she was a frontline fighter who had shot dead a hundred Islamic State (IS) fighters.
This was an image of the modern world where women have won equal rights and are liberal in their attitudes. She became known as the angel, a figure that harked back to other wars including the First World War when soldiers of Britain talked about the appearance of an angel in battle.
Filipa Braganca’s monologue describes a gentle childhood with a father who insists that women are equal to men and is willing to defend that belief with violence. He later describes Rehana as "Western, liberal and educated".
Indeed, her act of rebellion consists of sneaking off to school and reading law books when he wants to teach her how to shoot a rifle. It is a skill he is certain is necessary if she is to survive the coming civil war.
The invasion by what Rehana refers to as "Daesh" (a term not used by the IS) changes everything. Her mother takes her to the refugee columns trying to cross the border to safety in Turkey, while her father remains to defend the farm.
Rehana decides to return to save her father, is captured by IS and sold as a sex slave. Escaping, she joins a women’s fighting group whose leader persuades her to join the fight arguing that there are two sets of violence: "one that empowers, and one that enslaves."
Rehana’s adventures are exciting and told with moments of wit by Filipa Braganca who performs with warm engaging sensitivity.
However, the play merely gives us a harder version of the slightly improbable figure of the mythical Rehana "constructed" originally to win an advantage for one side in a civil war.
It also creates an extraordinarily crude stereotype of the so-called IS that makes early Second World War propaganda about the Nazis look like sophisticated, well-rounded portraits.
"Daesh", a term used because to Western ears it sounds alien and harsh, are the threatening hoards destroying everything in their path. Rehana, whose name is unusual among Muslims but sounds familiar to Western ears, is the victim and the defender standing in their way.
"Daesh" wrecks the family farm, burns the law books (symbolic of the way they disregard law and education), sells women as sex slaves, shoots unarmed civilians, and crucifies long lines of people outside of their homes. There is nothing about them that seems remotely human.
Writers should take sides when they are depicting injustice and one-dimensional stories can be entertaining, but at the end of the day if what is written fails to help our understanding of a situation or the people involved then it risks being simply lightweight propaganda however worthy its intention.
Henry Naylor’s play Angel unfortunately fits precisely into a crude dominant Western myth about the civil war in Syria and that hinders rather than helps understanding.
Reviewer: Keith Mckenna