In London it takes something special to be a stand-out venue. The Arcola is just that: committed to diversity and accessibility, they stage performances of new and exciting plays, often fresh from festivals like Edinburgh Fringe. Its commitment to diversity and equality is reflected in its programme: over its last season two thirds of performances have been led by women and stories tackling issues of gender and equality are a key feature. One such piece, Angel has just completed a successful run. Angel is based on the story of Rehana, a female fighter believed to have helped defend the Syrian town of Kobane from ISIS in July 2014. Although precious little is known about the woman herself, a mythology has built up around her and this play combines the sparse facts known about Rehana with the myths built around her as well as the true experiences of many women in Kobane. The atrocities suffered by women under ISIS have been highlighted by western media, but less attention has been given to the women engaged in the frontlines of defence. Angel shines a spotlight on these women and their role in the conflict.
This play is a one-woman show: actress Avital Lvova plays Rehana as she transitions from a young girl aspiring to be a lawyer to a legendary sniper, but this isn’t her only role. She plays Rehana’s father, mother, friends and foes, smoothly switching between characters. In some ways Angel feels almost like one continuous monologue – Rehana is taking the audience through her story – we are right there with her, experiencing every moment.
At times the play is noticeably unsubtle: early on in the play, a young Rehana is bullied and challenged by neighbourhood boys and prevented from climbing a tree for being a girl, she is forced to pretend to be the wife of a strange man merely to gain passage, and, at one point, is captured and sold as a slave alongside dozens of other women. It is clear that Angel doesn’t just want to tell Rehana’s story: it wants to capture the experiences of the many thousand women caught in this brutal conflict. Although such ambition should be praised, at times, it makes the play feel heavy handed – Rehana’s story feels almost unreal – she faces challenge after challenge, running full tilt through it all. In the play’s short running time of one hour this sometimes feels more than a little overwhelming.
Other aspects of the story are much more nuanced: Rehana’s own internal conflict is portrayed beautifully – she is angry and desperate, but also guilty and afraid. Arguably the best portrayal of this is in a scene where she shoots down invading soldiers, narrating the death of each one: “The rapist with his nine-year-old sex slave? Death. The homesick boy who made a terrible mistake? Death.” It is one of the many ways Angel acknowledges that the people she is fighting are not demons: like any war, this one is multifaceted and there are victims on all sides.
The staging is intimate. Arcola’s studio two is a small space, with Lvova frequently within arm’s reach of the audience. This makes the experience all the more intense. The low ceiling, stark lighting and minimal props contribute to the experience, a clear demonstration of just how powerful good storytelling and acting can be. ‘Good acting’ may well be an understatement when it comes to Lvova’s performance. She is remarkable; the one woman show gives her no breaks and no one to hide behind. Her role is physically and emotionally demanding as she fills the whole stage, switching rapidly between characters and emotions. Despite all this, she keeps the audience enthralled with her performance, there is no way you can tear your eyes away from her Rehana for the full duration of the play.
Its not difficult to see why Angel was so well loved at Edinburgh Fringe in 2016, achieving a sold-out run and several awards. It’s the third of writer Henry Naylor’s critically acclaimed series of plays Arabian Nightmares and his latest play Borders premiered at this summer’s Edinburgh Fringe and echoed the success of Angel and its predecessors. Angel ’s transfer to the Arcola gave London audiences a chance to experience this gem and, although its run at the Arcola is now over, it has left a lasting impression on its audience. The play has been touring the world in the past year and, following a sold-out short festival run, a French version of the play is now being performed at the Theatre Tristan Bernard until December 30th. Further performances are expected in 2018, and although any have yet to be announced, hopefully a wider UK audience will soon be able to experience this unique play.
Whilst we wait, however, the Arcola’s upcoming programme continues to explore the stories of women often ignored. Foremost of these is the currently showing All the Little Lights, tackling child sexual exploitation and the stories of women and girls who often slip through the cracks in society.
Where? Arcola Theatre
When? Run ended Oct 7th