A graphic and distressing play abut women in war torn Africa . . . .
“When the rebels came to my village and told them to volunteer some of their boys, before they even finished talking, I raised my hand and followed them because here we have a future, here we can really make it in life!”
Staged with the audience standing around the action and having to move out of the way on occasion, Matthew Dunster’s production of Diana Atuona’s first play is disturbing. The play takes place in the first Liberian Civil War, 1989 to 1996. We take up the story of 14 year old Martha (a magnificent first time performance from Juma Sharkah) who is about to be sent by her grandmother to the bush school where she will become a woman and stay for several weeks.
Secrecy surrounds this “coming of age” ritual for reasons which become apparent later in the play. But the bush isn’t Martha’s destiny as the village gets news that rebel leader Charles Taylor’s makeshift army of teenage thugs are on their way towards them. The women are encouraged to flee with all the possessions that they can carry.
Because of the danger to women and girls from these drug crazed, out of control rebel “soldiers”, Mamie Esther (Cecilia Noble) cuts Martha’s hair, binds her breasts and dresses her like a boy. When they meet Killer (Valentine Olukoga) and Double Trouble (Michael Ajao), the grandmother is taken away and Martha, presumed a boy, has to join the rebel army “Small Boys Unit”.
This terrifying play sees the courage of a young girl in trying to keep her humanity when challenged by gun toting rebel teenagers of 12 or 13 on drugs. Meeting Annette (Marieme Diouf) and Finda (Weruche Opia) we have no doubt as to what Martha’s fate would have been if Killer had discovered her identity. There are scenes of rape and random killing and immense brutality.
Charles Taylor, the rebel leader was sentenced to 50 years in prison in 2012 by the Special Court of Sierra Leone in The Hague. The judge said, “The accused has been found responsible for aiding and abetting as well as planning some of the most heinous and brutal crimes recorded in human history.” Taylor is currently in a high security British prison.
Anna Fleischle ‘s set sees the grandmother’s bamboo hut dismantled and the playing area has different levels. At one point the rebels dress in wigs and stolen clothes with their faces painted, posing for photographs but reminding us that they are dressing up like children in a game.
The performances are strong and chilling. Valentine Olukoga is scary as Killer with his complete lack of moral code. Juma Sharkah is remarkable as Martha, the resilient young woman who finds a way to survive. I liked too, Weruche Opia, as Finda, the girl who finds protection with Martha. Having the audience so close to the violence (you are given a choice on entering the auditorium whether to be close or a little further away) was challenging and I could see many scurry trying to get out of the way as the rebel soldiers ordered them to move.
Diana Atuona hasn’t shied away from a difficult subject for a first play and her grasp of dialogue is excellent, as is the writing of this story that won’t let go.
Written by Diana Nneka Atuona
Directed by Matthew Dunster
Director: Matthew Dunster
Designer: Anna Fleischle
Lighting Designer: Philip Gladwell
Sound Designer: George Dennis
Fight Director: Kate Waters
Running Time: One hour 45 minutes without an interval
Closed at the Royal Court on 31st January
but played at venues in Peckham and Tottenham
Jerwood Theatre Upstairs
The Royal Court
London SW1W 8AS
Tube: Sloane Square
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Royal Court
on 14th January 2015