Rites describes the multitude of conflicting views and the complex, challenging issues that surround the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
The research that has gone into the making of this collaboration between the National Theatre of Scotland and Contact Theatre, Manchester, is both broad and deep. Interviews were apparently conducted right across the UK, and all perspectives - no matter how potentially contentious - are given a voice in this gripping production.
Fara, a character whose continuous narrative runs between other myriad and disparate stories, anecdotes and opinions, urges us to ‘start by listening’. For the next 90 minutes, we do just that, as five actors, one male and four female, voice the words that are presumably taken from transcripts of those interviewed.
Mostly presented as monologues, the actors speak directly to the audience. There is some use of video images that are projected, appropriately and somewhat chillingly, onto white hospital screens. These images, such as close-ups of a razor-blade and hands being rinsed of blood in a metal bowl of water, often brought an immediate and visceral response.
The subject matter was dealt with in a mature, self-aware and intelligent manner that genuinely seeks and encourages understanding rather than demonization and avoids the neat labels that packs such cultural practices into neat little boxes, thereby allowing them to be more easily dismissed and forgotten. This often uncomfortable production instead stimulates thought and provokes debate, thus keeping the topic alive – and moving, shifting.
Again, it is Fara who pin-points the crux of this: that whatever the traditions of the past may be, it is the future that must concern us now; it is therefore not about changing the minds of older generations but about what the next generation may think and do. We therefore move, respectfully, from listening to ‘gently questioning’.
If there is one criticism to be levelled, it is that more theatrical devices were not used to really bring this production to life. There was only one scene that contained a group discussion and one other that was performed in the style of a TV live audience debate, with two of the actors performing from the auditorium. These broke the rather repetitive monologue format and provided a little necessary reinvigoration, but this could have done with a bit more. Ending the performance with Maya Angelou's poem 'Still I Rise' set to music was powerful and an inspired choice, but also a reminder of the sort of theatrical punch we had been missing.
The five actors deserve credit for giving some fine, naturalistic performances, and despite the lack of theatricality, this is sincerely worth seeing for the content alone. FGM is an extremely complex issue and among the very different opinions voiced in Rites, perhaps the only point that can be agreed upon is that there are no easy answers.
Runs until 30th May