Theatre review: ‘Angel’
Viscerally powerful and emotionally dismantling, Angel is a one-woman show where you soon forget there’s only one actor on stage. Yasemin Özdemir deftly conjures up a cast of characters with small changes of voice, posture and gesture so that she not only creates a world but busily populates it too.
It was little wonder that the audience was on its feet after last night’s opening at Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre, an ovation both richly and properly deserved.
‘Angel’ is based on the story of Rehana, a young Kurdish woman whose story spread like viral wildfire on the internet and was subsequently tested for its veracity. But then again, truth is the first casualty of war. After her family fled Rehana allegedly killed more than 100 ISIS fighters, employing rifle skills her farmer-father had taught her, keeping her from school to take aim at Orangina bottles, seeing her trained eye turn into that of a sharpshooter. The father has himself been a fighter and still tells tales about that time which have grown taller in the retelling.
Özdemir as Rehana, the Angel, takes aim at the very heart of her character and inhabits her completely, unpeeling all the complexities of a westernized, liberal young woman who knows it is against the law to kill not only because it says so in the Koran but also because she is studying law. She is a pacifist too, so the act of killing is a red line for her, only to be crossed in a time of extremis or in the split-second act of an irreversible decision.
The show, designed by Sean Crowley is visually spare and affecting. There’s a line of broken wall which mirrors the way in which Rehana aligns herself with the rubble of her desecrated home and abandoned village. A drape of camouflage netting acts as scant foliage and a reminder of the ever-present danger of soldiery. A desert sun beats down on hard-baked earth. An upturned crate might carry ammunition or orange pop or even someone to the grave in the immediate vicinity when that sad time comes.
But some of the rest of the setting is conjectural, hinted, suggested, not least the trees which grow around the settlement, the ‘trees in an unrecorded forest’ as the play has it, which are soon harbouring school bullies in their branches and come to represent those slain in the war, and often senselessly so. The idea that there are male tree and female trees is planted early on, making sense only as the bloody fruit of the piece are fully revealed.
This is the theatrical swansong of Peter Doran, who has been at the helm of Milford Haven’s Torch Theatre for a quarter of a century. It must have given him great pleasure to cast such a talented actor who had been a member of the Torch’s Youth Theatre company. And to see her do such sterling work, delivering nothing short of a commanding, blistering performance, moving effortlessly from delicate nuance to hard emotional punches to the solar plexus on a beat or a sharp intake of breath.
It is difficult to imagine a play more relevant to the times with which to bow out. The number of displaced people in the world continues to swell by the day, and by the thousands, too, while women are raped and killed, their deaths often unrecorded in the mainstream media. The death of 22-year old Mahsa Amini in Iran as a consequence of alleged police brutality is one of the few stories to have bucked that trend into invisibility and silence.
Only a few days ago a suicide bomb exploded in an education centre in western Kabul, leaving at least 35 women and young girls dead. In one sense Henry Naylor’s play, recounting Rehana’s tale serves both as a reminder of those myriad tragedies but also serves to personify the suffering.
Spoils of war
‘Angel’ is a testing piece at times, not least when we see women being treated as nothing more than the spoils of war, or being traded by traffickers who do so as heedlessly and as casually as if they were moving livestock. A nine-year old girl commands a high price at market, while another captive takes her own life rather than yield to her looming fate at the hands of a man.
‘Angel’ is the third part of Naylor’s ‘Arabian Nightmares’ series and there is plenty of the nightmarish about the testing and troubling subject matter, dealt with unflinchingly, as befits a tale about a sniper. But it is leavened with some grim and gallows humour too, which comes as some relief among the growing horror of this young woman’s terse and tense biography.
One of the most powerful poems to come out of the Second World War was Keith Douglas’ “How to Kill” which homes in on a soldier training the gunsights of his rifle on a German in the distance, on ‘the man who is going to die’ who ‘moves about in ways his mother knows/habits of his.’ ‘Angel’ is a salutary reminder that there is never a pause in history’s run of atrocities and women are often in the firing line, or collateral damage, or worse. This is a play that hits the target unerringly.
‘Angel’ continues at the Sherman Theatre until the 8th October before touring to Theatr Mwldan in Cardigan, The Lyric in Carmarthen, Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Newport’s Riverfront Theatre, Theatr Brycheiniog in Brecon and finally the Torch in Milford Haven. You can find the dates here.
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Really would like to see this, but once again North Wales does not get a look-in, why not?