Cora Bissett and Yusra Warsama
National Theatre Scotland
Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol
"I am real" we are told by Fara, (Paida Mutonono), alone on a stark stage at the outset of Cora Bissett's and Yusra Warsama's remarkable new play, Rites. The simple honesty of those words, the first three of the play, is a direct appeal to the audience: listen, learn and trust in what is to follow.
It's the perfect opener for a play which tackles the complex and emotive subject of female genital mutilation. Fara is an FGM survivor and her words, along with those of a rich seam of characters woven throughout this piece, are given verbatim, in quite the most profound use of the genre since Philip Ralph's Deep Cut.
Janet Kumah, Paida Mutonono, Beth Marshall and James Mackenzie give impeccable performances, supported beautifully and at late notice by Deeivya Meir, who stood in for Elena Pavli following an injury.
The triumph of this play lies in the uncluttered dignity with which it sets out the testimony not only of the women who are FGM survivors, but also of the women who are cutters, activists, lawyers, social workers, nurses, teachers and campaigners.
Palpable is the co-creators' desire to understand and respect the women and the cultures directly affected by FGM, and the production is all the more effective for it. What Bissett and Warsama do brilliantly, is to shine a spotlight on a practice rooted in cultural heritage, setting that practice into its historical, social and political context, and giving voice to those who have survived it and to those who continue to practice it.
"I had discovered I was a mutilated woman. I was a type... a statistic", recalls Fara, after a lecture on the topic at university brings her to the startling realisation that she herself was an FGM survivor. All the more fitting, then, that Rites should give her a voice, an audience and consequently, give her back her individual identity.
Rites tackles this complex issue with a degree of clarity otherwise hard to come by, particularly for those of us who only know what we know because of western press coverage.
Pitch-perfect scripting and direction makes for an unlaboured and deeply affecting production. Around me, men and women strained forwards in their seats; at several points in the play, someone behind me was moved to quietly voice a response to some of the more stirring points made along the way. And after a moment of contemplative silence at the curtain, a well-deserved standing ovation.
Rites is one of those rare and important moments of theatre: informing, enlightening and challenging its audience, a clarion call to us all.
Reviewer: Allison Vale