Real Life – True Stories? Peter Maple talks to Henry Naylor about Angel – TALKING ARTS

Borders. Territory. Men. Women. Children. Family. War.

Bullets. Guns. Flesh. Bone. Love.

Freedom. Adversity. Despair. Loss. Courage. Strength. Power.

These are just some of the many affairs under examination in Henry Naylor’s politically-loaded, Angel – a hypnotic one-woman show that chronicles the life story of the ‘Angel of Kobane’, a pistachio farmer’s daughter in Northern Syria who became one of the deadliest snipers in recent history. The show has travelled to us from tumultuous successes at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe Festival to land here, in Mittagong and Illawarra, under the banner of the Merrigong Theatre Company.

[Merrigong Theatre Company Artistic Director Simon Hinton has said, “At this year’s Edinburgh Festival I saw 27 shows and one extraordinary piece of theatre stood out. Angel created a sensation in Edinburgh, selling out its entire four week run and winning several awards including the coveted Fringe First.”]

Here today, we have playwright Henry Naylor firmly lined up in our sights to discuss:

The Australian Premiere of Angel – why/how with Merrigong Theatre Company?

Simon Hinton, who’s the Artistic Director of Merrigong, saw the show in Edinburgh, and thought we’d be a ‘good fit’ for the venue. From our point of view, too, we’re impressed with the touring shows he brings across. He really seems to attract some of the best of new global theatre – so we’re honoured to be in that company.

Beyond providing enthralling theatrical ‘entertainment’ (which the show does), what else are you hoping to provide for prospective audiences? Do you hope to highlight awareness on such hotly-contested topics, and provoke conversation? Create a greater social discussion?

I was really keen to show people what’s going on in Syria. The Conflict hasn’t been covered well in the Press; there are very few Western journalists ‘on the ground’ in the country – for obvious reasons. It’s a particularly bloody conflict, and captured Westerners have been dealt with brutally. So News Editors have been reluctant to place their staff ‘in the field.’ But it’s a conflict that we need to be talking about. It’s one of the frontlines of the battle between freedom and tyranny.

I researched this thoroughly, so hopefully, by piecing together the accounts of many different combatants I’ve been able to form an accurate picture of what’s been going on.

Also I think there’s a strong feminist theme in my work. I honestly believe that in 60 years’ time we’ll be looking back at this age, and be embarrassed at some of the inequalities we’ve tolerated in our society. This story is about a woman who fights back – and wins.

Why this one individual’s story?

The story is told from the perspective of Rehana, the Angel of Kobane. She was a law student who forsook her studies when IS began besieging her home town. She joined the resistance and became a crack-shot sniper – a prolific killer, who is said to have gunned down as many as 100 IS assailants…

I thought the arc of her story was extraordinary: she was a person who initially believed in the courts and the rule of law, but, by the end, dispensed justice down the barrel of a gun. An astonishing transformation; an arc like that is the stuff of drama!

How did you personally come across her story? And decide to adapt it?

To be honest, I’m obsessed with the Middle East. I went to Afghanistan after the war ended in 2001, to research a project, and it changed my life. I’ve been cutting out news clippings from the region, and saving them ever since. It’s formed the basis of much of my subsequent work.

In 2015, I was writing a play called Echoes (which compared the Jihadi brides of today with the Victorian colonial pioneers). As part of my research, I was doing a lot of reading about the women of the Middle East. I saw her story, and it leapt out.

Why a theatre adaptation? And why a one-person show?

I adapted the story for theatre – (as opposed to the screen) because I loved the challenge. Rehana’s would have to be a huge, epic story, with a cast of thousands, and dozens of locations.

Perfect for film. Difficult – nearly impossible – for theatre. Loved it.

We deliberately pared everything back. Dispensed with the set. Dispensed with all the actors (apart from the lead herself). Had no music, no props. Minimal lighting cues.

And just relied on an actress, a director and myself to tell the story. It was great. We all wanted to be at the top of our game, no-one wanted to let the others down. And I think between us, we’ve produced something we’re very proud of.

What is it difficult to find that ‘right’ actress?

It’s a very difficult role. At the start of the story – Rehana is a naïve, innocent 12 year-old. By the end she’s a cold efficient killer. So our actress needed be able to convey a wide range of emotions. She also has to play 16 different characters in the show – again a tall ask. So yes, it’s a challenge.

Sometimes when you’re casting a show, you just get a gut feeling, an instinct about a performer. There’s a little voice in your head tells you “this is the right person for the gig”. It was like that when Avital walked in the room. She was one of the first people we saw when we were casting this time around.

When Michael (the director) and I were casting, we thought: “It’s a solo show – and if you’re going to listen to someone talking to you for an hour – they’ve got to be LIKEABLE.”

Avital walked in and instantly showed a wonderful, quiet charisma and intelligence. She’s clearly very strong physically – which is important; it’s a very physical show. And then she read the words – and was fantastic. Really brilliant. Understood all the imagery, the characters, instantly – she just GOT IT.

And when she left the audition room Michael and I were a bit dumbfounded. We thought the part was going to be really difficult to cast – and yet the first person we saw was just perfect. We saw some other actors just because we didn’t believe that it could be that easy. And no, we just got lucky. The first person we saw was the right person.

Did Avital and/or anyone else balk initially at such a politically charged, personal, and dangerous, almost-mythological story?

If she had balked at it, we wouldn’t have cast her! Also, she probably wouldn’t have turned up for the audition – because we give agents and casting directors a summary of the plot beforehand.

So much of the content exists in a ‘grey zone’ – nothing is black & white – nothing is ‘easy’ – there are no clear answers. So even though the show has been receiving its deserved accolades, has it likewise been a hard consumption for some others?

It’s an interesting question. I personally found it quite hard to consume. During the research, you end up seeing some pretty vile stuff, especially when the Search Engine is off.

I deliberately set out to make the subjects of my plays about ‘questions which I don’t know the answer of’. Because I like to try and work out ‘the answer’ myself when I’m writing.

Writing this play, I was asking how I might respond if I were being besieged by a marauding army of extremists. Would it be possible to hold into my pacifist values? Would I submit, or would I fight? I made my characters answer that question…

Are there any reactions – good or bad – that really stand out in your mind?

The reactions we’ve had have been almost universally positive.

We got 18 five- and four-star reviews in Edinburgh.

But there was one young journalist, who’s only objection to the show was that some of the events which took place were distasteful. Given that the events she was talking about were real historical events rather than things I made up – it seems she might been objecting to history itself, not us.

As a writer – is it difficult to take (creative) ‘ownership’ over someone else’s life?

In the case of Rehana, it’s hard to know what her life actually was. There’s so many conflicting accounts on the internet – it’s hard to know where the real Rehana ends and fiction begins. It’s not even clear whether she’s alive or dead.

And because she’s become an internet myth – and because that myth has been manipulated and twisted so much – the ‘story’ of Rehana probably bears little resemblance to the real Rehana.

I didn’t feel any qualms when I was writing – because I wasn’t really writing about Rehana – I was writing about all the women in the region. I used events which happened to dozens of women in Syria.  The events which happen in the story probably didn’t happen to The Angel herself. But they happened to someone out there. ‘Rehana’ was a convenient mould into which I could pour the stories.

Do you ever wonder if Rehana is (utterly) amazed at what has become of her life her story – it’s place in the world…?

I’m sure she’d be amazed. I would be.

What’s next?

Hm. Have got a few things I want to write. An 80s musical, a war-comedy, or, a story about the newspapers…

Peter Maple – Theatre Now and Talking Arts
Original publish date, February 10, 2017.