By Henry Naylor
Directed by Michael Cabot (“Angel”) and Emma Butler (“Echoes”)
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“For this is my connection, the community of humanity.” – Shamira in “Echoes”
Afghanistan. Syria. Syrian refugees. Jihadism. Expansionism. Colonialism. Afghanistan. Ipswich, Suffolk, England. Which of these has not been in the national news during the past two weeks? Ipswich. The remaining locations, events, and ideologies have all commanded the attention of the global community in recent weeks: they also inhabit the scenes of Henry Naylor’s dramatic pair “Angel and Echoes” currently running at 59E59 Theaters as part of their annual Brits Off Broadway Festival.
This “well decorated” pair is part of Mr. Naylor’s “Arabian Nightmares Trilogy” that has erupted from The Edinburgh Fringe and traversed the UK and NYC. Set in Ipswich, Syria, and Afghanistan, “Angel & Echoes” rehearses the tragic repercussions of jihadism, radicalization, and colonialism in the Middle East – and beyond. The plays also focus on the relationship between women and men, sexism, and sex trafficking. These are deeply disturbing plays that raise a significant number of enduring questions. For example, when is one doing one’s god’s will and when is one an apostate? How does one know what any god’s will is? Who makes that decision? What does it mean to triumph under one’s own terms? The importance of Mr. Naylor’s work is not in his complicated details but in the underbelly of the connection to “the community of humanity.”
In “Echoes” two women leave their home in Ipswich, England to fulfill what they see as their “mission” in life. Both are 17 years old. Samira (Serena Manteghi) is Muslim and leaves her Ipswich home with her friend Beegum to marry Akeem and, in Akeems’s words, “fulfill God’s purpose.” Tillie (Rachel Smyth) is a Christian living in Victorian times and leaves her Ipswich home to marry in India. On her way, she meets The Lieutenant and ends up in Afghanistan to do God’s work, in the Lieutenant’s words “to spread our peace, wealth and civilization through Commerce.” Tillie has been “Thrashing around, trying to find a man. For my Christian desire is to produce children for the Empire.” One would assume both young women will find satisfying ways to fulfill their lofty aspirations. One comes to discover neither does.
In “Angel” Rehana (Avital Lvova) defends her Syrian home of Kobane from the incursion of Isis and learns from one called The Commander that “If you don’t fight them, that’s the system of Justice which will prevail. If you don’t fight, you facilitate; if you facilitate, you collaborate.” Rehana never realizes her wish to become an attorney, nor does she fulfill her father’s dream to run the family farm. She does, however, get to use the skills in weaponry her father insisted she learn. Her commitment to the women soldiers fighting the rapists, religious bigots, and the radicalized is daunting and captivating.
Under the direction of Emma Butler (“Echoes”) and Michael Cabot (“Angel”), the three actors tell these stories with passion and considerable energy. They play the parts of all the characters involved in their stories and do their best to differentiate between that cast of characters. Because of the complexity of the stories, it is sometimes difficult to keep track of who is speaking. Additionally, the actors speak so rapidly, some of the important narrative is lost. Their stories, however, remain important and connect on deep levels to the current political struggles in the Middle East – and elsewhere.