It’s easy to imagine the Hollywood version of Cry God For Harry, England and St. George!, the reflection on Shakespeare’s Henry V playing at theSpace @ Surgeon’s Hall. There’d be a kind-hearted but unconventional English teacher, maybe played by a comedian trying to prove his or her chops as an actor (I’m so sorry, but I keep picturing James Corden). When their class of Muslim students’ production of Henry V is nearly derailed by fears aroused by ‘Punish A Muslim Day’—an actual day proposed by an anonymous letter that circulated just a few months ago, offering ‘points’ for committing various acts of violence—the teacher must inspire their young charges to defy their anxious families and go on with the show. Day saved!
But while parts of Cry God For Harry are a touch formulaic, it’s a tried-and-true tale with a crucial difference: this group of London Muslim schoolgirls, led by the brave but arrogant Sayara (Sumaiyah Rahim), don’t need a white mediator to lead them to Shakespeare. There are no adults, no teachers holding their hands, unlike in your classic inspirational teacher movie, or a thousand well-meaning arts outreach programmes.
More than that, there is no single writer credited, instead ‘16 young people aged 13-17 are responsible for the creation’ of the play. Inspired by Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female Shakespeare Trilogy and produced by the East London-based Mulberry Theatre Company, the play is made and performed by the young women it’s about: teenage Muslim girls from Tower Hamlets. And there’s something wonderfully moving about watching them work through the questions that we often take as a given: what does it mean to reclaim Shakespeare? Is it more urgent to tell the untold stories about your own life, or to prove that you can imagine yourself to be anyone—and that any character could look like you?
What’s most important is that they’re asking and answering these questions for themselves. Shakespeare’s power and importance isn’t taken as a given, and though there are some jokes at the incomprehensibility of the poetry and the characters’ distance from the young women being asked to perform his words, those who are sceptical of his ability to speak to their lives and interests are taken entirely seriously.
Unlike the ham-fisted attempts of some older writers to integrate social media into their dramas, these teenage artists have an intuitive sense for both the promise and the perils of modern technology, which becomes a natural turning-point in their efforts to use Henry V as a retort to the racists.
Against a colour-block set (designed by Emily Bestow) that abstractly but perfectly evokes the cheery design of a 2000s community centre, a series of mini-debates that loosely but cleverly parallel the speeches from Henry V they are practicing gives each of the characters her moment in the spotlight—passing the Bechdel Test in spades, unless you count talking about the faceless hoards of racist Brexiteers as talking about a man.
When the time comes to rally her wayward troops—or rather, wayward acting troupe—Sayara frets that she isn’t eloquent enough to find a way to reach them. She’s no Shakespeare, and no King Henry V. But that’s alright, an unexpected mentor assures her, and that guide’s words prove true: even if it’s not fully polished, what matters is that you speak from the heart.
Cry God for Harry, England and St George! is on until 11 August 2018 at theSpace @ Surgeons Hall. Click here for more details.