CHILD PRISONERS OF TERROR
The faces of Nigerian Chibok schoolgirls – kidnapped en masse from school or in smaller village raids – haunt the world. Bright teenage faces compulsorily veiled look out of the bullying videos: destined for prisoner exchange if they’re lucky, for rape, enslavement or suicide bombs if not. Theresa Ikoko’s acclaimed debut, a Talawa / Soho / Hightide production, is ironic programming against the other Hightide play I saw last week: the feminist angst at psychological “colonization” in Elinor Cook’s “Pilgrims” feels uncomfortably first-world next to this.
For Ikoko simply gives us in 90 minutes a classic POW drama, in which the prisoners are schoolgirls. In a simple, arresting set by Rozanna Vize, forest turning to hut in seconds the three girls chat, worry, bicker and even giggle as girls will, talking about families, lessons, anatomies and TV shows, sometimes role-playing everything from “games about weddings” to soap opera to award ceremonies and Pop Idol. That they are intelligent, halfway through a serious education, is subtly but firmly indicated. Schoolgirls anywhere will recognize them. But the girls’ differences resolve as the months pass, via growling blackout noises, separately and starkly as they fall into three archetypal prisoner modes.
Ruhab (Yvette Boakye) takes up with one of the unseen captors, veils herself, convinces herself that prayers to Allah are no different to the Christian ones she learned at home, and becomes pregnant: but still captive within the hut. Tisana (Abiola Ogunbiyi) , the youngest and most naive, is flogged for not praying as instructed, and for a time entertains showbizzy fantasies of her return as a heroic “living martyr”. But Haleema – a skinny, angry, arrogantly heroic Anita-Joy Uwajeh – is determined to escape, at any cost, and tries to pull the others with her : one collaborating, one terrified.
There are light moments: talks about sex, Ruhab’s pleasure in losing weight, even in the hints of horrors outside a sudden conviction that the “trail of fire and flesh” the captors leave will lead rescuers to them. But the picture grows darker: talk of other girls being sent away, of their fates, and of scared Tisana being destined, as Ruhab tells her, to the prepared “to marry tall Arab”. Halima protests “she hasn’t even had her periods…”.
It is to the credit of Ikoko, and her director Elayce Ismail, that the horrors are fleeting, and all the worse for that: the best prisoner stories show us how in a terrible way appalling things become routine. All three performances are focused, distinct, passionate and convincing; the hour and a half in the claustrophobic hut is intense. My only quibble is with the final scene: unrelentingly un-redemptive, a final horror for Tisana. The moment just before that when the girls – escapers and remainer – pray together could be a sharper, more questioning conclusion. So would Tisana’s line “This world is not for girls”.
Two days before I saw it, reports came from Nigeria of more negotiations for whatever girl-children have survived this unpardonable theft of youth.
Touring to Birmingham Rep 20-24 Sept, then Soho Theatre