Friday, December 7, 2018

Review: 'Aisha' at the Old Red Lion, 6th December 2018

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Don't go to Aisha if you want a chilled out night at the theatre. This is 75 minutes of pain, misery and rage, condensed through the small yet powerful form of Alex Jarratt. She plays the titular Aisha, a 17-year-old girl who has been purchased from her parents by her uncle, married against her will, imprisoned, enslaved and raped almost every day for three years.

And, without wanting to give too much away, you shouldn't hold out hopes of this being some kind of emancipatory feel-good drama of someone triumphing over adversity. There is a battle at the heart of Aisha, but it's the equivalent of a person screaming into a hurricane. 

Written by "AJ", the show has an impressively streamlined purity and sense of focus to it: it's a one-woman monologue; Aisha is on stage pretty much the entire time and; while other characters do feature in it, they're left to the audience's imagination. 

Zeroing our focus onto Aisha rather than distracting us with other performers is a smart decision - if, for example, her rapist husband was actually played on stage then it would diminish the monster that we visualise in our heads. It also makes the painful and traumatising rape scenes in the play that much more powerful, her absent husband standing for oppressive patriarchy as a whole rather than as an individual we can collectively hate.

Another clever choice is Jarrett's interacts with the audience, a technique that sets us on edge and cranks up the tension. The most excruciatingly awkward moment was when she singled out some middle-aged guy in the audience as her father and repeatedly implored him to come on stage and dance with her. Understandably he remained rooted to his seat (which I think was the point - though if I was chosen I probably would have gotten on stage...). Other examples are Aisha handing props to audience members in the front row to look at or, in my case, being asked to hold her dress as she washes herself.

It's a simple and straightforward dramatic technique that reminds us that this story isn't some hypothetical fantasy, but rather something that invisibly happens all around and that (at least on some level) we're all implicated in Aisha and other child brides' plight. After all, what do you do if you see a girl with suspicious bruises standing in front of you at the supermarket till? Would you step in and ask her if she's okay or look the other way?

And then there's Alex Jarrett's performance. I'm not one for lists of superlatives, so I'll just say she's fearless and brilliant. There's a palpable intelligence to the way she interrogates the audience, half mourning the loss of her potential, half eager to show off that even after all she's suffered she's still herself. And yet, you sense a deadening of feeling within her, a gradual dimming in her eyes as she realises that even if she were to escape through a tantalisingly unlocked door, 'normal life' is now a fantasy.

So yeah. This isn't drama for the lighthearted but it's drama that deserves an audience. You might feel bad for looking away when you see something uncomfortable in real life, so sooth your conscience by at least confronting it through art. Kudos to everyone involved, they've knocked this out of the park.

Aisha is at the Old Red Lion under Saturday 8th December. Tickets here.

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