Dear white male playwright, Middle Eastern women are not your play things.
Henry Naylor’s Angel is a one woman show based on the life of Rehana - the Kurdish law student and alleged killer of 100 Isis soldiers whose photo made it from the town of Kobani in Syria to Twitter in August 2014. There are no confirmed facts or figures; just mythologies. A fascinating story, rife with possibilities that any playwright would be attracted to: a vital opportunity to inject something fresh into the mainstream portrayal of Muslim territories and a stunning opportunity to showcase the talents of an exceptional Middle Eastern actress. Oh, what could have been.
Angel is written by a middle-aged white man, Rehana is played by a Russian woman and there isn’t a single Middle Eastern name attached to the entire creative team. I wonder as the audience files in - whiter than a matinee at The National - how Naylor and his team will interpret these cultures and what dialogues will be opened by this production. As I mull this over I notice something in the programme which answers my question. In the description of the town the play is set in it reads ‘until the Arab Spring the town didn’t have much history’ - Naylor won’t reimagine these place, it turns out. Instead he'll dismiss them entirely.
The Literature graduate in my head starts shouting something clever about colonial rhetoric, but there’s a whisper in the back of my mind, coming from the Cypriot in me: it’s the sound of my ancestors spinning in their graves. I show my Iranian friend sat next to me the audacious words. ‘Not much history’ we repeat. As we do so I’m reminded of Peter Pan explaining that fairies will cease to exist if we we say we don’t believe in them, I think about how many times the white man has denied the humanity of others the same way a child might deny the existence of fairies; ‘we’re here’ I think ‘we’re real’ I say. And with that the production starts.
Before I get into the play itself I want to underline something: there are no accidents in theatre, only choices. Whenever a backlash occurs against these choices those responsible will plead not guilty and blame the jury’s interpretation. But I know the deliberateness of theatre too well, and there are no mistakes in this production - only intentions: to create a white washed version of Middle Easterners that will make the white privileged audience feel educated (read: self congratulatory) but never excluded (incidentally, this is the exact same reason Disney are including a white prince in their upcoming adaptation of Aladdin)
The play kicks off with a high energy entrance from Avital Lvova who plays Rehana and all the characters she encounters. For a play which claims to be about women, it’s baffling that 50% of the time Lvova is playing men. And who are these men? They’re trigger happy rapists who lack empathy; cartoon villains written by a white man who daren’t explore the possibility that Isis could be intelligent or charismatic. It’s only in Rehana’s father, who teaches his daughter how to survive, that we see a potentially likeable male, but Lvova plays him with such militancy that it’s impossible to connect to. Basically, all these Middle Eastern men are exactly the same.
Michael Cabots’s direction displays an arrogant lack of musicality which disregards the inherent melody of Middle Eastern speech patterns. Naylor keeps telling us we’re in the Middle East (there are so many references to olives and pistachios that I nearly heckle ‘Ok we get it, you’ve been to Green Lanes’) but there’s no effort to show us. Even the slightest nod to the melodic cadences of Arabic would have added depth, texture and god forbid authenticity here, this could have been achieved not with accents but an attention to poetry and rhythm. A choice was made not to bother.
Naylor does make sure to fire shots at the Turkish government's initial refusal to accept refugees, though sadly he couldn’t find the time to mention the impact of 139 years of the British Empire in the Middle East. That deliberateness again. Those choices.
Angel parades itself as a play about the life and legacy of one of the most important Kurdish women in history whose identity politics are the precise backbone of what her story is and why her story matters. To have her played by any ethnicity other than her own is inappropriate. To have her played by a Russian woman (with a Russian accent) is outrightly disrespectful. In the last 72 hours alone, an estimated 69 Syrians have died as a result of Russian air strikes. In what way does this honour the life of Rehana who fought to bring peace to the lives of her Syrian brothers and sisters?
Beyond the specificity of Rehana is the broader problem of casting. How many more Middle Eastern actresses have to come forward and express their boredom at only being cast as the Jihadi wife or suppressed daughter. Exclusion is a form of violence. Ingratiating women of Muslim heritage into the fabric of our cultural and artistic life will allow them (us) to be seen as a vital and requisite part of the British identity, given that hate crimes against Muslims have increased fivefold since Brexit this is about more than just theatre, it’s the responsibility of society as a whole to fight for equal representation. How can we expect to combat the Islamophobia of Trump’s Muslim ban when we cannot even get Muslim actors through the stage door?
White people can play everyone but BAMER actors are too often forced to stay in their lane. When a part like Rehana comes along and is mis cast a message is sent - ‘we know you better than you know yourselves’ - classic colonial bants again. Henry Naylor, Avital Lvova, Michael Cabot and The Arcola made a choice. No amount of stars or awards mean it was a good one though.
Now we need to make ours. We must buy into our brothers and sisters while boycotting our oppressors (because that is what they are), white actors need to start saying no to these castings and venues need to stop hoping they’ll get away with it. Being diverse some of the time and deeply un-diverse at others merely makes those initial achievements seem tokenistic - we’re not fighting for fleeting seasons, we’re fighting for a consistent availability of parts for everyone, in plays that are about everything. We will not be othered out of our own narrative. And if someone turns to you and says this isn’t about race, ask them why there isn’t a black James Bond.
** Originally featured on THE TUNG