Following The Collector and Echoes, Angel is the third play in the Arabian Nightmares series written by playwright Henry Naylor. Directed by Michael Cabot, the one-woman production premieres at the Arcola Theatre in London after a sold-out run at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe. All three plays have had their debut at the Edinburgh Fringe between 2014 and 2016, and have subsequently toured both the UK and globally. In addition, Naylor’s most recent work Borders at this summer’s Edinburgh Fringe made him one of the few playwrights to have won the Fringe First award three times.
While writing Echoes, Naylor happened upon the story of the Angel. Inspired, Angel combines the mythology surrounding a true story with the experiences of many women at the time of an attack by ISIS forces in Syria around July 2014. Having overwhelmed Iraq, ISIS reach the sleepy town of Kobane, Syria. The siege is fierce, and the terrorist cell soon arrive on the doorstep of a farmland belonging to the family of Rehana Ghazali. While in her late teens and with aspirations to study law, her father pulls her away from academia to teach her how to use his rifle. As the battle endures, Rehana is forced to abandon her career as a lawyer to train as a sniper. Rumours whisper of her having killed up to one hundred members of ISIS – she is the Angel of Kobane.
Haze lingers over a single cork barrel, and amber light sticks the floor. As Rehana, Avital Lvova emerges, breathing heavily and wearing a moss-green vest, camouflage trousers and sturdy army boots. Acting as one body, she becomes many characters – both friend and foe. The idiosyncrasies of others shift from moment to moment as she snaps across their bodies, each one charged by her experiences with ‘the gun’. Her childhood is painted with a liberators brush. It begins with the death of her rabid dog Bizou, with her Father compelled to shoot it to protect her from harm. It is from this moment that his lessons begin, but all too soon, it is he that needs saving.
Naylor’s script is visceral, and its narrative growls with a hunger for justice. Western culture is wound beautifully into instances of emotional and physical combat to produce delicate moments of humour, each as charming as the next. Designed by Andy Grange, light rises and sets across the theatrical terrain as Rehana travels in hope of finding her Father. The barrel journeys with her, transforming into a three-hundred-year-old tree, a bed, and then a car. Headlights scream and tears swim in Lvova’s eyes, sparkling with the fear of Rehana’s predators. Encounters with Kurdish YPG and ISIL military make the blood run cold, and bullets zip through the air. A sense of urgency becomes more pointed as death finds its target through an outstretched index finger, the weight of the Ghazali ancestry heavy in Rehana’s once pacifistic heart.
Angel is as powerful and as devastating as the rifle balanced in Lvova’s hands. As the lights go down, applause ricochets off the walls and feet find the floor. Knees release their safety catch and unlock, as if squeezed like a trigger. The standing ovation is instant and enduring, a passionate celebration of this bold and dangerous tale. Together, Naylor and Lvova use Rehana’s story to snatch the promise of paradise from those radicals that seek to cause harm, proving that one person can indeed possess the power to transform the theatre of war in a very real way.
Angel is playing at the Arcola Theatre until October 7.
Photo: Steve Ullathorne