Paired one-acts about gender, violence, and war in the Middle East, Henry Naylor’s Angel & Echoes wear their gritty significance on their sleeve, proud of their refusal to look away from the brutality of the conflicts of both the present (the Syrian civil war) and the past (the British occupation of Afghanistan in the Victorian era). But rather than an unflinchingly honest look at the horrors of war or the difficult choices faced by women fighting both on the battlefront and against repressive patriarchal cultures, the piece, in the Brits Off Broadway series at 59E59 (where Echoes returns after a sold-out run in 2016), feels more like a sensationalized war film, almost reveling in the violence it depicts. The three heroines–Angel/Rehana (Avital Lvova), a Kurdish soldier fighting against ISIS in northern Syria; Tillie (Rachel Smyth), a spirited, adventurous nineteenth-century British soldier’s wife; and Samira (Serena Manteghi), a British teenager who runs away to marry an ISIS soldier in Syria–are all depicted as brave, clever, fierce, and a bit foolhardy. But the tales of their adventures become almost surreal, cartoonishly over-the-top to the point where they feel more like Quentin Tarantino characters than flesh-and-blood women. And there’s a prurient, voyeuristic attention to the bloodiest details that makes the violence committed by and against these women feel like spectacle rather necessary responses to impossible situations.
There may or may not have been a real-life “Angel of Kobane”: a law student who dropped out after the death of her father to fight on the Kurdish front lines in northern Syria in late 2014. Real or not, she became a poster girl for the Kurdish freedom fighters, and a potent symbol on social media. Naylor’s Angel adds several more layers of personal quest and revenge to Rehana’s story: on the verge of crossing the Turkish border as a refugee, Rehana abandons her mother there and bribes her way back into Syria to find her father, who refused to leave the family farm. En route, she’s captured by, then escapes from, Daesh (the Arabic name for ISIS), though not before being sold as a sex slave to her childhood tormentor, now a local ISIS commander. Taught to shoot by her father, she’s recognized as a valuable potential soldier by the Kurdish forces who capture her next, and she enlists in their cause on the promise of seeing her (dying) father again, and also for the chance to take her revenge on those who are responsible for the destruction of her family and her home.
In the hands of a lesser performer, the lengthy tale of Angel’s adventures could feel clunky. Told largely through reported dialogue (with Lvova taking on the voices of her father, her captor, etc. to tell the stories), Rehana’s story is a constant string of triumphing through pluck over impossible, terrifying obstacles, until finally joining her ultimate revenge to her death. And Michael Cabot’s direction, in trying to clarify the narrative, often results in long sequences of Rehana simply turning from one side to the other and back to convey both sides of a conversation. But Avital Lvova brings a brightness and a strength of purpose to Rehana that add emotional urgency to the piece even when its plot twists are both implausible and grotesque.
Echoes twins and intertwines the lives of two women, one in the present day and one in the age of the British Empire: Tilly, a bright, scientifically curious Victorian young woman in a provincial English town, heads for the colonies to improve her marriage prospects, and winds up married to a lieutenant in the British Army, posted to Afghanistan. Bored, restless, and grappling with her own growing sense of discomfort with the imperial project, she tries to engage with the local culture and winds up, instead, starting a chain of events that include the horse-whipping of a beggar, her own abuse at the hands of her husband, and a rebellion that leads Tilly herself to pick up a sword and kill. In the present, Samira, a British Muslim teenager, has the flames of her outrage over the plight of refugees fed by her best friend, Beegum, until they run away together to Syria to marry ISIS fighters. But the reality of life as the second wife of a fundamentalist Muslim soldier is more brutal and less romantic than Samira and Beegum had imagined. Beegum picks up arms and rushes to the frontlines herself; Samira, after an act of sacrifice by her husband’s first wife makes her escape possible, tries to flee to the border and return home–but with many more obstacles to face on the way. The parallels between the two are simple–both seduced by an ideology of Empire and doing God’s work, both come to realize how women’s bodies are used and abused in the name of these ideals.
Rachel Smyth and Serena Manteghi both give strong performances, and director Emma Butler deftly works with the mirror metaphors set up by the way the two strands of text are interrelated. But, even more than Angel, Tillie and Samira seem to exist solely for the purpose of their martyrdom, as plot functions that graph the journey from woman to killer.
Between its up-to-the-minute pop-culture references (Beyonce, Justin Bieber, Mariah Carey) and the rich detail of its descriptions of violent acts, Naylor’s writing has a lush, almost glossy texture that ultimately ends up coming far too close to fetishizing the heroines’ different acts of martyrdom. I don’t doubt the feminist intentions of all the artists involved, or the strength of the women depicted, but the piece made me extremely uncomfortable, and not, I think, for the reasons it wishes to.