Angel by Henry Naylor, Daesh, Edinburgh Fringe, Filipa Bragança, Henry Naylor, ISIS, Islamic State, Jihadism, Kurdistan Workers' Party, Michael Cabot, Pipeline Productions, Raqqa, Syria, The Angel of Kobane, Theatre Review, War on Terror, Warfare
We might not necessarily need heroes and heroines but it is still quite nice to have them around. Recent UK military conflicts have not involved much recognisable heroism; those who want to be stirred by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have to eke out what they can from the unfortunate imbalance of power between the rival sides. Our guys were flying safely above the conflict zone or seated safely and comfortably back in drone HQ. Their guys were mostly civilians, scurrying between ruined buildings. The Falklands War was marginally more like cricket, but it remains maddeningly incomprehensible to most normal people as to why the two armies had ever fought in the first place. The spoils were some minor islands which, however wildly you twist the map, self-evidently belong to Argentina. Here too, vainglory was compromised from the get-go.
In the PKK et al’s war against the so-called Islamic State, ordinary people picked up any weapons to hand and tried their luck against a regime which was, for once in recent history, incontrovertibly bad. The subsequent aesthetic, as it is evinced in “Angel by Henry Naylor,” is as merrily Victorian as General Gordon. There are plucky heroines and readily identifiable villains. When the latter get it in the neck, they basically deserve it.
“Angel” is accordingly a bit of a music hall. The show is sold out today – the crowd is large and fidgety – and there is laughter, sentimentality, and the tuneful emotional fanfare of any good family movie. It is a one-woman show which is performed with great energy and skill by the young actress Filipa Bragança. With Jackanory proficiency, she tells the story of Rehana, a law student who escapes war-torn Syria to join the queue for Europe, only to change her mind. Rehana returns to retrieve her father, who has stayed behind to take potshots at the so-called State. Along the way she is forced to fight and then kill for her values.
“The Angel of Kobane” is what my generation would call an “urban legend,” and what consequent generations might identify as a “meme.” There is no evidence that the lady who had featured in the Kurdish publicity photo which was widely shared on social media had killed a hundred jihadists (as if she would have really counted them!) Nonetheless “Angel” humours this fantasy and it soon gleans some easy and very likeable heroism from it. This approach might be unfashionable today or even profoundly alien to how fashionable theatre tends to view things. These days, there are few notable heroes or heroines left on their pedestals – they have been all exposed as closet racists or child-molesters. “Angel” harks back to simpler times. Angels, in fact, exist.
Rehana is the gal next door, with her wonky humour and middle-class decency. You might mistake her fretting over having to shoot teenaged jihadists as a concession to realism or authenticity. It isn’t really and it is only added sparingly, to confirm how decent she ultimately is. She is never required to bend her principles too drastically and even in the black funfair of Raqqa she doesn’t drain bitterness to the dregs. She kills because this is regrettably a custom in war and not because she has been brutalised or demoralised.
Is this heroism a weakness? Is there something overly conservative about a girl warrior who must die virgo intacta? It all depends upon what you want from this play. The accounts of life under the so-called State admittedly resemble Indiana Jones’ pictures of Nazi Germany. On the other hand, it is massively refreshing to be able to enjoy some dependable derring-do, without embarrassment or naffness. When Filipa receives an almighty standing ovation at the end of the show, I surrender and join in. Rehana has stolen my heart as well.