The theater has not been kind to the English port city of Ipswich lately. Alecky Blythe’s documentary musical London Road, a huge hit for London’s National Theatre recently made into a film featuring a singing Tom Hardy (no, really), shows Ipswich’s working class to be petty and vindictive. In the revival of Henry Naylor’s Echoes, part of a double bill with new play Angel at the Brits Off Broadway festival, Ipswich is such a “dungheap” that it drives two women into the arms of religious extremists in Afghanistan and Syria. Compared to the hellscapes in which the women of Naylor’s “Arabian Nightmares” find themselves, though, Ipswich is the Garden of Eden.
Don’t get confused; though it comes second in the title, Echoes is performed first. Constructed as a pair of dueling monologues (as in David Harrower's A Slow Air, seen in 2012's festival), the play tells the story of two 17-year-old British girls doing their godly and patriotic duties (for them, one and the same) by traveling to foreign lands to get hitched: Tillie (Rachel Smyth), a “Victorian pioneer,” and Samira (a luminous Serena Manteghi), a modern day jihadist.
It’s easy to see why they’d run. All Tillie has to look forward to as an independent thinker is spinsterhood at the age of 25, and one day Samira wakes up to a world in which four million of her compatriots have voted for future Brexiteer and all around scummy white nationalist Nigel Farage. Tillie, a devout Christian, learns about the so-called “Fishing Fleet,” women given free passage by the East India Company to marry their employees; she meets and marries a handsome lieutenant on the passage over, thrilled to fulfill her Christian desire “to produce children for the Empire.” Samira, hardly devout, is introduced to a 30-year-old British Islamic State soldier over Skype by her radical friend Beegum; soon both women are on a bus in Syria with four other brides in full niqab, “vision reduced to a slit.”
It quickly becomes clear to Tillie and Samira that they are little more than child-bearing sexual playthings for their husbands. As their circumstances grow increasingly grim and sordid, their bodies revolt, refusing to carry pregnancies to term. The women’s repulsion at their husbands’ irreligious violence is deepened by the profound betrayal they feel.
Angel, the stronger of the two plays, is a one-woman show loosely based on the true story of Rehana (Avital Lvova, in a muscular, live-wire tour de force), a Syrian law student who left her studies and trained as a sniper with the YPG (People’s Protection Units, a Kurdish militia) when ISIS moved in; she is rumored to have killed 100 ISIS soldiers.
All three women are examples of the equally loved and reviled “strong female character”—for some an empowering archetype, for others an inhuman cliché. The plays don’t let them off the hook, though; Tillie and Samira, as colonizing forces, are each implicit in their own misery, and Rehana is only empowered by becoming a killer.
Director Emma Butler stages Echoes with a dignified calm; Tillie and Samira don’t interact, but they float into and through each other’s space, sometimes standing in for their oppressors, often quietly representing a universal sisterhood. It’s only when the women share a cross-generational glance of solidarity near the end, in fact, that Samira has the strength to remove her abaya and decide her fate. Director Michael Cabot matches Lvova’s brawny vitality in Angel, staging the play as an intimate action movie.
Both plays are clear, angry, and unflinching about the plight of women and the roots of radicalization, but there is a deep sense of disquiet bubbling underneath them, which has nothing to do with the decapitations, crucifixions, and starvation the women witness, horrifying as those are. It revolves, instead, around the problem of who gets to tell whose story, an evergreen, probably insoluble issue that has gained a testy topicality with the inclusion of white artist Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till in the current Whitney Biennial.
No one has an inherent proprietary right to her own story, but it is critical that artists interrogate their reasons for wanting to use that story with a stone-cold, ruthless rigor. From the cheekily tone-deaf “Arabian Nightmares” title to the too-easy Orientalizing of women as “the great artists; the creators,” it seems clear that the almost all-white creative team, however talented, has not done that essential work. The plays encourage an engaged cosmopolitanism, but flog that important message by profiting from the pain of others.
Henry Naylor’s Angel and Echoes runs through May 7 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St., between Park and Madison). Evening performances are at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2:15 p.m. Saturday and 3:15 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and information, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit 59e59.org.