The National Theatre of Scotland has achieved a well-deserved reputation for broaching emotive and controversial subjects, from infanticide (in the Flemish play Aalst) to the deportations of child asylum seekers (in Glasgow Girls). That reputation can only be enhanced by Rites, a co-production with Contact Theatre, Manchester about the vital and difficult issue of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
The piece is directed and co-created (with Yusra Warsama) by Cora Bissett, the woman behind both Glasgow Girls and Roadkill, the award-winning play about the trafficking of young women into prostitution in the UK. It is a very necessary, well-researched and culturally sensitive docudrama in the verbatim theatre tradition of plays like The Colour of Justice (the dramatisation of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry) and Deep Cut (which considered the death of four young soldiers at the Deepcut army barracks in Surrey).
The script is constructed from accounts given by a diverse group of people engaged in the FGM issue, from survivors of the various procedures known euphemistically as “female circumcision”, to campaigners, health workers and lawyers. A talented cast of just five actors bring us an array of voices from around the UK and from such disparate societies as Somalia, Nigeria, Egypt and Kurdistan.
The work ranges from moments of essential gynaecological, historical and cultural education to deeply personal stories. The insights of a white, English, male London QC, who warns against a crude demonisation of people from cultures which practise FGM, are sobering. So, too, is a reminder that forms of FGM continued in the UK and US, under the dubious auspices of psychiatric treatment, well into the 20th-century.
Perhaps the strongest, certainly the most inherently dramatic, moment in the piece comes when a Gambian student in Scotland intervenes to prevent her young niece being taken from the UK to Gambia where she is at risk of FGM.
Such moments are rare, however. Although the show succeeds admirably in its portrayal of the complexities of the issue and its knowledgeable advocacy against FGM, it is, in essence, a work of campaigning journalism.
Neither the projected imagery and texts nor the self-consciously “dramatic” music can mask the fact that, typically of verbatim drama, the piece lacks theatrical momentum. Ultimately, Rites seems better suited to TV documentary than to theatre.
At Tron Theatre, Glasgow until Saturday, then touring to Manchester, Bristol and Edinburgh. For tour details, visit: nationaltheatrescotland.com.
This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on May 7, 2015
© Mark Brown