Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 9 February 2015

The Singing Stones

Arcola Theatre ⋄ 2nd-28th February

Placard slogans.

Alice Saville

Women have been central to the Arab Spring: marching under banners for regime change, demonstrating outside courtrooms, blogging, hunger-striking in prison and even forming their own armies. Kay Adshead’s series of short plays tries to offer windows into all these roles, in a rapid-fire sequence of unsophisticated scenes set across the Arab world.

An energetic Alia Alzoughbi opens the evening with a monologue, or rather a dialogue between herself and three puppets. She’s a Syrian woman making jokes at Assad’s expense, reinforced by only half-visible projected footage satirising his regime. But her stand-up routine’s liveliness devolves into overblown horror as she’s taken into prison, and mocked by a group of women who implicitly blame her for her own suffering. The story is based on the real life Syrian artists’ group Massasit Mati. But their creative resistance and satire is depicted as a solitary endeavour that’s divorced from, not embedded into female camaraderie.

She turns up again, a solitary voice of cynicism in the central work, Women’s Spring. It’s a huge, messy epic, crossing borders with uncertain momentum. We see female resistance fighters in Kurdistan dancing in a synchronised show of togetherness and fulfilment. Brides from English suburbs coming veiled to meet husbands in an IS caliphate. Old women, taunting a toppled dictator who’s trapped in a pipe. Protestors, imprisoned and sexually assaulted. There are compelling moments: like the fighters’ remembrance of their fallen friends, or the brides’ sullen sinking as they realise what they’re getting into. But they’re almost lost in a sequence of accelerated horrors: we’re told of maimings, torture, rapes, without having time to feel for the women who suffer them. The unevenness of tone doesn’t help either, with the transitions from story theatre to naturalism to song made more awkward by an under-rehearsed clunkiness.

Kay Adshead is artistic director of Mama Quilla, a company that’s been making community led political theatre since 1999. They’re experienced, published and garlanded. But here, her play deflates midway through in a bout of soul-searching bordering on self-loathing. In an agonising scene set at a Camberwell production meeting, Adshead satirises every shortcoming of the production so far, and then some. It’s led by a fictitious director who has collected a crew of artistic women in her Dad’s house – as well as his Thai bride, who she tries to shoo away. She’s awful, an unsparing caricature of the kind of well-meaning but hapless organiser who’s utterly ignorant of inter-sectional feminism.

But by making a kind of straw woman to humiliate, Adshead doesn’t make herself immune from criticism. And even in this self-referential scene, she inadvertently falls back on some grim stereotypes – the Thai bride as a kind of perma-cheerful idiot savant, the Arab women’s group organiser as retiring and unable to put her views across. The final playlet, a fable of a singing woman in Tahrir Square, has a simple power which further exposes the looseness of what’s gone before: it’s a narrative, not a snapshot taken at the most poignant possible moment.

This play is trying to be everything. With each new scene it desperately extends its grasp, from Syria to Palestine to South London. But its palpable need to be understood makes it painful in the wrong ways. It’s a brainstorm by someone visibly overwhelmed by a subject matter too broad for a verse epic, let alone a short play. In trying to tell the story of a movement, it loses the stories of the real women in it, their voices simplified and one-dimensional as so many placard slogans.

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Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B

The Singing Stones Show Info


Produced by Mama Quilla

Directed by Kay Adshead

Written by Kay Adshead

Cast includes Arinda Alexander-Kaur, Alia Alzougbi, Sarah Auber, Tina Gray, Rhiannon James, Jody Jameson, Rus Kallan, Eugenia Low, Vivienne Rochester

Link https://www.arcolatheatre.com/production/arcola/the-singing-stones

Running Time 2 hours 30 minutes

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