What makes a straight-A student run away to become a Jihadist’s wife in a Syrian basement? Nigel Farage, according to Samira: a bright, witty and adventurous young woman who, disillusioned by modern Britain, is lured to extremism by the promise of community, purpose, and a handsome husband. Her journey from Ipswich to the caliphate is echoed by that of Tillie, a Victorian ‘fisher-fleet’ woman who is offered free passage to India to become the bride of a lieutenant, and so avoid that dreaded title, spinster. The alternating monologues of the two 17-year-olds explore the attractions, and subsequent horrors, of a life of duty. Having arrived in their destinations – Syria for Samira, and eventually Afghanistan for Tillie – the reality of man’s brutal domination of the land, its ‘savage’ and ‘heathen’ populations, and his power over the female body, quickly unravel the women’s expectations of adventurous lives fulfilling God’s work.
Tillie’s world – ‘Ipswich in Asia’ – is one of manners, gossip, and propriety. The flippant remarks of other officers’ wives about the ‘natives’ jars with Tillie’s observations of the local’s poverty, repression, and brewing anger, often resulting in humour that dilutes the implied violence of the situation. However, when remarking on her personal experiences, Tillie’s tale is far more sombre, particularly in its portrayal of marital life. Tillie’s naked body is as foreign to herself as the land she has found herself in: an object for reproduction, which she is berated for by her husband when ‘it’ fails to conceive. This is a theme that recurs. Samira experiences her body not as one that is respected for the potential of maternity, as she expects, but as one that is colonised. Marriage, she discovers, is not a holy union to bring sons to the caliphate, but an easily adoptable tenant dissolved according to the whims of a husband and the blessing of a cleric. While Samira begins with a wry and endearing humour, her tale is soon the far more confronting of the two. Tillie’s is subtler, told through English manners and a slowly eroding gentility, and her interludes become somewhat of a relief from the onslaught of Samira’s terror.
The striking simplicity of the set — a single bench and a spotlight — and the contrasting black and white costumes, lend the stage a quiet intensity. The performances of Felicity Houlbrooke and Filipa Branganca are rich and nuanced, particularly through portrayals of rape and betrayal. Branganca, particularly, is utterly compelling. These are not easy stories to hear, but Naylor’s vivid and often poignant dialogue, woven with a subtle but crucial humour, effectively reminds us why reflecting on how the past recurs is so important. For what is most potently expressed here is a tangible echo of atrocity. While the horror of ISIS may seem as distant to us as the Victorian Raj, we are culpable in its existence. Western societies are all too good at breeding a culture of fear and exclusion, and, with relatively few details, Naylor makes Samira’s radicalisation seem, somehow, almost reasonable. This is timely, necessary, and compelling theatre.
For show times and to book tickets, see the Fringe guide.