Review: Angel by Henry Naylor

KSN’s resident theatre kritik presents his thoughts on a popular play about the Kurdish struggle against ISIS in Rojava.

Henry Naylor’s Angel is a one-woman play about the Battle of Kobanî, first staged at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016 and touring the UK (and beyond) ever since. The play is the third in Naylor’s Arabian Nightmares series of vaguely thematically-related stories set in and around the Middle East and tells the story of Rehana, the potentially-mythical Angel of Death credited with killing 100 ISIS fighters with her sniper rifle.

The play has received effusive praise from many media outlets during its various tours, and on a purely craft level it is well-deserved. With creative use of very minimal stage decoration and an impressive performance by the central actor (Yasemin Özdemir in the performance I saw), who has to portray multiple characters using only postural and vocal changes, the play is a well-produced and reasonably entertaining work. One of the core themes of the play serves as a good exploration of the important concept of welat parez (which roughly translates to patriotism or love of one’s homeland), though it unsurprisingly never referenced as such in the play. Minor criticisms, like the fact that the sheer physicality of the role means the actor sometimes sacrificed clarity in favour of breathless excitement, are just that: minor.

But let’s be real: you didn’t come here to hear what KSN has to say about the play as a piece of entertainment. And it is when considering the politics of the piece—as the other reviewers do not do—that it begins to fall down.

There are some aspects of the play that come off a little strange to those with more context, but which are forgivable in the interests of contextualising the story for Western audiences, who likely have little familiarity with the Battle of Kobanî and none with the Kurdish Freedom Movement (KFM). For example, when describing her hometown at the beginning of the play the character likens Kobanî to Berwick-upon-Tweed, and despite the fact that it is almost four times the size this comparison does a reasonable job of capturing the pre-ISIS reality of the town as a not-particularly-prominent border town. Similarly, there are some plot aspects that I am willing to accept in the interests of narrative cohesion and payoff: Rehana’s teenage rival Waheed later becomes an ISIS commander and their final confrontation comes off as altogether too neat, but as a way of succinctly capturing the reality that many who fought against ISIS came from the same communities as those who fought for them, it’s not awful.

But there are several other flaws that are more fundamental. Before going into these, though, I think it’s worth noting that Naylor is very proud of the amount of research he puts in to all of his plays—around six months before even picking up a pen to write, according to him. As a result, it seems reasonable to assume that inaccuracies and omissions are the result of conscious decisions on his part, rather than simple ignorance.

As I see it, there are two key issues with the play. The first is the glaring lack of vital context provided to the audience, which reaches a point of absurdity when one character laments that if only we were a few meters across the Turkish border, none of this would have happened. To declare such a thing when Turkey has been and is still currently engaged in a campaign of genocide against the Kurds in Bakur, not to mention their efforts to at least tacitly [aid] ISIS, falsely suggests that the threats facing the Kurds were limited to Syria and began with the emergence of ISIS.

Indeed, I saw the play shortly after the #RiseUp4Rojava campaign published their How to recognise a war when you see one brochure, announcing that there would be no waiting for Day X in the face of continuous Turkish low-intensity warfare. Was there any mention of any of this at the end of the play? No, the audience were allowed to go home under the false impression that ISIS’s (tenuous) defeat means all is now well in Kobanî. There was no mention of the subsequent Turkish invasion and occupation of the canton, and I doubt there will be any mention of the current attacks in any upcoming showings. Instead, there was only a plug for another play by the theatre company; if I remember correctly, it was about a rugby player.

In the play, Rehana also introduces her father as having spent some time fighting in the mountains in the past. This is something of a loaded phrase within the KFM, but in the play there is no further detail provided as to just which mountains they were, or who her father was fighting for, or against. Again, the casual viewer is left to conclude that her father must have been fighting in some Syrian mountains, for no organisation in particular and (presumably) against the Syrian regime.

And this leads us into the second key issue: the depoliticisation of the Rojava Revolution in general, and the YPJ in particular. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t mean to suggest that the latter half of the play should have consisted of lengthy political discussions or an Öcalan reading group. As much as I would happily go to see an adaptation of La Commune to a Rojavan setting, I doubt there’d be mass appeal and the margins of an indie theatre company are tight indeed. However, a truly capable playwright should have be able to compellingly weave some hint of the radical politics of the KFM into the narrative. Instead, we are given Rehana, the Angel of Death who fights for her right to listen to Beyoncé. Naylor considers his plays to have a strong feminist bent, but Rehana’s feminism exists in the limited bounds acceptable to Western capitalism—she desires self-expression through media consumption and dreams of becoming a lawyer and operating within the confines of the legal system—which ignores the radical theory underpinning the YPJ’s ideology. This is a recurrent issue with media depictions of the KFM in general, and the YPJ in particular, which Hawzhin Azeez has summarised better than I could have:

The general western depiction of the YPJ, particularly through the Western media, has presented her as essentially emerging solely as a result of ISIS. Her ideology, her activism, her entire political position, therefore, is analyzed in relation to the rise of ISIS’s brutal ideology. This position points to the ways in which racialized and sexualized minority women’s entire subjectivity is determined from the perspective of the Western gaze—whose analysis determines and becomes the medium through which her position is clarified.

And Azeez’s later point about the media attention garnered by Kurdish fighter Asia Antar for her physical beauty and celebrity-like appearance echoes a truly risible running joke in Angel about Rehana’s apparent resemblance to Mariah Carey, and various characters’ confusion of Carey and Marie Curie. I say risible because whilst the joke itself is fairly inoffensive, Naylor decides to bring it up during an otherwise-harrowing scene set in an ISIS slave market, amongst other bafflingly inappropriate locales, which I feel only shows Naylor’s comfortable detachment from the subject of his writing. Instead, he boasts about how he spent his six months of research bec[oming] an expert on pistachio farming.

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