It’s not altogether surprising that female genital mutilation (FGM) was not a prominent aspect of any party’s election campaign. It can be easily dismissed as a custom practised by other cultures and therefore not a priority for the UK. But immigration was a buzzword from the past few weeks and Cora Bissett and Yusra Warsama’s Rites demonstrates exactly why FGM is an issue for 21st century Britain.
Bissett began researching the National Theatre of Scotland production, after speaking with a friend from the Scottish Refugee Council in 2013, bringing in Warsama after seeing her show at the Edinburgh Fringe. Bissett and Warsama created the script by interviewing an eclectic range of people affected by FGM including: victims; activists; lawyers; teachers; nurses; religious figures and one ‘cutter’. Brought to life through a cast of only five, these personal, frank and at times troubling memories are stitched together in a traumatic tapestry of anecdotes.
There’s a cold, impersonal feel to the stage, backed by a large screen that frequently washes the floor in a pale, sterile glow. Bissett doesn’t season her vignettes with elaborate props or over-complicated sets, instead utilising the simple, honest and colourful power of the language. The text itself is compelling and horrifying, enlightening and baffling, offering a full spectrum of opinions and experiences, and the knowledge that these are not the phrases of a disassociated playwright but are lived experiences, gives it that extra hit of potency.
There is a danger of verbatim work in theatres becoming more TED lecture than performance, and Bissett weaves in some nice threads of dramaturgy. The stark atmosphere is punctuated with bursts of sound and colour as the African and Asian heritages are evoked through brightly patterned costumes, injecting some much-needed brightness into the bleak ambience. This is aided by the endearing characterisation of the interviewed persons, recreated with likeable individual personalities and traits, whatever their cultural background, accent or ideology.
Although it predominantly follows an episodic, direct address format, the creators, along with the cast, have worked hard to give these statements depth. However, the strength of Rites’ text is also its biggest weakness. The forward march of scenes gets a bit plodding and being exposed to such uncompromising themes for 90 minutes, without an interval, is like leaning your head out of a car window for too long. It’s really great but it can wear you out.
What is pleasing is how the act itself is visualised. If this were a Channel 4 documentary, there would be an unnervingly smiling doctor with an arsenal of probing cameras showing us FGM HD. But Bisset is more tactful. Playing off the horrific and somewhat gruesome imagery of the words, she both stuns with brief frames of genitalia and irreverently teases with a metaphorical clip of fabric being sown.
Bisset notes in the programme that she wishes for Rites to be a catalyst for bringing the issue of FGM away from taboo and into public debate. There is no definitive answer here; the collection of confessions gives weight to all sides of the argument and that is a good place to start. Understanding the many nuances of the FGM discussion, is the first step towards making a change.