Aisha is a devastatingly powerful one-woman play about what it really means to be a victim of child marriage in the UK, not as an impersonal statistic but within an endless lived reality. It tells the story of a seventeen-year-old girl, imprisoned in the house of her husband; an older man to whom her parents had sold her to when she was fourteen. He repeatedly abuses her physically, psychologically and sexually. Yet, whilst the scenes confronting the violence she experiences daily are sickeningly harrowing, it is the sensitivity with which Aisha’s (Alex Jarrett) experience is portrayed that often provide the most distressing moments.
Writer and director AJ’s script uses spoken-word poetry to present a brilliantly complex character, eloquently brought to life by Jarrett’s intense, compelling performance. Despite the horrific circumstances Aisha endures, we see flashes of a bright, considerate, expressive girl, especially in those split-seconds in which she forgets her situation and delights in her own intelligence. These poignant moments, and the sole presence of Aisha throughout, foreground her personality, eloquently demonstrating that whilst she is a victim, she is also so much more.
Of course, those moments of forgetfulness are soon swathed in the pervasive fear that is Aisha’s incessant companion. The physical absence of her tormentor on stage, even when his actions are unmistakably portrayed through Jarrett’s performance, suggests that he exists to Aisha less as a person, and more as a brutal, controlling force that permeates every aspect of her world. This menace is reinforced in Alys Whitehead’s set design, evoking Aisha’s oppressively mismatched world in which a rope hanging from the ceiling and a bottle of spirits impose their sordid influence onto the otherwise cosy child’s bedroom.
Any hope Aisha has of escaping this life is soon shown to be as asymmetrical as the jaggedly diminishing corridor separating her from the world beyond her door. It is not only her vile abuser enforcing her continued captivity. Her unashamed parents visit regularly, and on those infrequent occasions Aisha leaves the house, no-one can quite believe what could be happening to her. One of the lines that really struck me comes in Aisha’s description of those at her wedding as “non-dissenters”. This phrase, alongside Jarrett’s defiant sustained eye-contact with individual audience members throughout the performance, challenges all of us watching to reconsider how we think about child marriage and whether passive condemnation is anywhere near an adequate response.
A further challenge to the way we talk about child marriage as a society (when we do at all) is articulated when Aisha outlines her situation through dictionary definitions. These matter-of-fact descriptions of ‘sex’ and ‘coeternal’ are then subverted by sentences that express her existence with a shocking, gut-wrenching simplicity: “I am seventeen”. This simultaneously reminds us of the schoolroom where she longs to be, and reiterates the tension between the sanitised language in which child marriage is publicly discussed and the gratuitous cruelty of its reality.
In this unforgettable hour, Aisha manages to explore an incredibly distressing issue with sensitivity and honesty, whilst paying tribute to the individuality of its central character. It is rooted in the societal and cultural conditions that propagate child marriage, yet its nuances demonstrate that this practice concerns everyone irrespective of religion, ethnicity or gender. Perhaps the greatest achievement, however, of this immensely impressive, troubling and compassionate story of a girl torn from her future by measured and systemic violence, is not its refusal to look away from this ongoing horror, but its ability to provide a language through which we can truly begin to understand the pervasive evil of its reality.
Aisha played at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 5 January 2019. For more information, visit the AILIA website.