Theatre review: Rites, Glasgow

Paida Mutonono plays a Glasgow University student called Fara in the new NTS production, Rites. Picture: Sally Jubb

Paida Mutonono plays a Glasgow University student called Fara in the new NTS production, Rites. Picture: Sally Jubb

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You don’t have to be a campaigner or a social worker or a midwife or even, frankly, a woman, to grasp that female genital mutilation, inflicted on some 130 million living women around the world, does not have a great deal to recommend it. Just hearing a (male) lecturer read out the World Health Organisation’s dispassionate description of its various forms, early in Cora Bissett and Yusra Warsama’s valuable and important new show on the subject, is enough to turn your stomach. Mine anyway.

Rites - Tron, Glasgow

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So instead they wisely have Fara, their main protagonist, a Glasgow University student from the Gambia (played with simple honesty by Paida Mutonono) say: “Let us start by listening.” What we listen to are, for the most part, the words of real people. There are mothers, fathers, daughters, sisters, lawyers, champions, police – even a former “cutter”. You can almost feel the care which must have been lavished on the piles of recordings, notes and transcripts.

For this is no simple matter. If it were, we might, for example, have seen prosecutions under the legislation that outlawed the practice in Scotland ten years ago. But, as a leading lawyer in the field points out, the last thing we need is thousands more black people in jail. And anyway, what child is going to give evidence against their otherwise doting parents?

These and other complexities, ranging from the economic value of demonstrable virginity to the invasiveness of any attempt to “check up” on families of particular ethnic backgrounds, are revealed in a calm, quiet presentation: a subtle soundtrack from Patricia Panther; some simple projections (videos by Kim Beveridge) on screens which have something of a hospital about them (designs by Jessica Worrall). Five multi-ethnic performers, with the extraordinarily versatile Elena Pavli perhaps first among equals, impersonate the teeming multitudes in a virtuoso display of vocal dexterity and the simplest of costume changes.

In the end, this co-production between the National Theatre of Scotland and Manchester’s Contact Theatre is, with a screeching irony, an oddly bloodless affair. It engages the head but, unlike Roadkill, Bissett’s earlier foray into the almost equally difficult territory of human trafficking, it lands no big emotional punch.

Rarely are there moments of drama; rarely are there even moments of dialogue. But perhaps that’s no bad thing for a subject which has quite enough emotion boiling around it already.

Seen on 05.05.15

Until today, then touring, including Traverse, Edinburgh 26-30 May.

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