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[Review:] THE GLASS WILL SHATTER, Omnibus Theatre, London.

Visually, this is quite a stunning performance whose unfixed and simplistic set (designed by Rana Fadavi) allows for dynamism and dimension. The motifs of glass and sound waves allow for consistent tension amongst spectators, the feeling that something drastic and transformative is on the brink of passing. The effect of this is accentuated by having the glass on stage constantly throughout the performance, evocative not only of characters Amina (Naima Swaleh) and Rebecca (Josephine Arden), both together and as separate individuals, but of the situation this play presents and reflects. This latter symbolism is of particular importance to me, as I really enjoy that Rebecca herself inscribes her teachings and “facts” onto the glass, as though her “factual” thinking and [mis]education is what causes this escalating tension between the characters.

This is a very dark play, and this is translated into music and sound (sound design by Nicola Chang), which remains harrowing in its use of triggers and shrills, as well as in the performance’s design: low lighting (lighting designed by Will Monks), sharp and dramatic visual effects (projections also by Monks), lack of colour in costume, etc. Each of these has their own commendable impact. In fact, costume seems to play quite a role in this performance. I enjoy that the other characters, particularly Amina, wear colour where Rebecca does not, as though they are enlightened or relate to the world differently, this meaning being accentuated by the other characters’ comments on Rebecca’s red necklace. Jamilah (Alma Eno) relates this to a ‘red waterfall’, as though it has some unique significance to her — which we could perhaps infer to connote blood? — and Amina often reminds Rebecca of how pretty she thinks it is, as though ironically, seeking to invalidate her other aspects.

Indeed, Amina does just this in stating that Rebecca’s clothing is provocative, that she is sexualising herself through it. This is a particularly poignant item, with clothing being a fundamental difference between cultures and a key signifier of provocative behaviour/intention and licentiousness across many religions. In critiquing Rebecca’s clothing, Amina gains an unusual upper-hand, establishing her own cultural teachings as appropriate and correct over Rebecca’s own, British ones. Here, writer Joe Marsh exposes how oppressive such seemingly “trivial” matters can be for non-British cultures. However, in having Amina act in such a way towards Rebecca, Marsh also “confirms”, less directly, that foreign cultures intend — and succeed — to oppress British traditions, cultural values and overall society, and this brings me to the content of the writing.

This is a play with very specific material and intentions, and yet, its text relies too heavily on connotations and inferences insofar as Amina’s true identity and our reading of it is concerned. Amina is consistently represented as viperous and disparaging. She actually seems rather racist in the way she attacks Rebecca for her Whiteness. There is little that exposes why this is so, and our reading of Amina becomes purely guesswork. I imagine that this is because Marsh intends to remain respectful and politically correct as a British writer writing Somali identities –– perhaps he wishes to abstain from misrepresentation in a play which aims to demystify racial/cultural differences in Britain –– but it is almost impossible for any play dealing with race and culture, particularly one like this wherein two are set against one another, to be completely 100% respectful of all sides involved. Appropriateness is not necessarily to do with what material is being presented but 1) the manner in which it is being presented and 2) the content that surrounds this material, which can either complement or discredit it. I shall elaborate on this, but in order to do so, I first need to explicate the overall plot.

In The Glass Will Shatter, we follow Rebecca’s trauma resulting from interactions with Somali-British student Amina whilst working as a teacher in a secondary school. It becomes evident to us over time that it is not necessarily Amina herself that Rebecca is traumatised by but the way in which their sociocultural differences are presented by Amina herself or external forces such as leadership and law. Over time, Amina comes to represent the other, a cultural opposite to Rebecca. Rebecca must gauge what behaviour is natural and acceptable by British law and what seems disruptive or anarchist towards British values or British society as a whole. Towards the end of the play, however, especially when Amina divulges that she herself had extensive trouble as a result of her cultural differences, it becomes evident that Rebecca is not a victim; instead, she is feeding into a widespread national scaremongering around non-British nationalities, non-white ethnicities and, ultimately, terrorism and that she is projecting this thinking onto Amina. Actions such as teaching Amina the semantics of Syria vs Islamic State or even taking off her headscarf, or using language such as “You terrorised me” all demonstrate that Rebecca has given into this widespread fear and treats Amina as something to be afraid of, as though her culture is indicative of or equivalent to terrorism, demonstrating an utter lack of respect for her culture and her as a person.

Now, back to this lack of specificity. As we follow the story principally through Rebecca’s eyes, having no real explicit detail of Amina’s personality, home life, upbringing or real intentions, what we actually have is an account of British vs non-British through the British perspective. Spectators really have to be aware of the contemporary social realities of non-white, non-Christian members of our society to really benefit from the subtext behind this play which never explicitly gives us a [realistic] reading of Amina’s point of view, of how such individuals are affected by matters such as Brexit, extremism, terrorism, xenophobia and racism. What we see is primarily one-sided, with these social realities scarcely exposing themselves, primarily through Jamilah’s wise advice, who acts as a sort of voice of reason, a realistic [if unwholesome] voice for Somali culture, and through Swaleh’s fragmented, interpretative movements representative of Amina’s distress (more on this later).

Whilst Rebecca’s point of view is contradicted regularly by the other characters, we are presented with nothing substantial enough to prove her thinking and perspective as so erroneous or overdramatic. In fact, Amina’s behaviour towards Rebecca is so outlandishly bitter and malicious that it becomes difficult to see her as anything but ill-intentioned, nay evil. What we are left with is a two-against-one scenario of Somali vs British where Rebecca is constantly [and unrealistically] victimised. The lack of information and specificity about Amina and her reasoning leaves us with an incomplete reading of the situation; we are unsure as to what actually happened between these characters and as to who was actually in the right.

Conversely, to some degree, it is good that we know nothing of Amina’s actual identity and thinking. It allows for modern British persons amongst the audience to subconsciously refer to what they have been indoctrinated to believe through a rise in scaremongering media and hate speech and thus in systemic racism/xenophobia. However, this is exactly why it is crucial that this play demonstrate the social realities of the real-life people Amina represents. Whilst we are aware from the middle of the play onwards that Amina feels differenced, excluded and inquisitive, not only are we left unaware as to why but, as mentioned above, her actions and demeanour suggest that this is a deceitful front, something of which to be suspicious.

As I alluded to earlier, without more explicit components, it could seem as though Marsh is actually intending to represent non-British cultures as disruptive and oppressive to British people and ideals: Amina persistently refers to whiteness and ill-intentioned white culture, yet there is no equivalent so explicit from Rebecca’s side; Jamilah refuses to report Amina’s seemingly political comments and is identified by Rebecca as siding with her; Jamilah speaks of the importance of foreign communities within Britain without detailing why these are important; Amina’s speaking to Rebecca in nothing but Somali later in the play is only presented as disruptive and impertinent, bringing fear and misunderstanding to Rebecca, and the notion of relishing in one’s own language and culture is not presented elsewhere as natural or inoffensive; etc. The effects of all of these features is a confirmation — or, rather, reaffirmation, reinforcement — of current extensive British ideologies against other nationalities and ethnicities but particularly Muslim identities. I hope it is clearer now through all of this what I mean by the importance of more specificity in this play. After all, the aim of this performance is, essentially, to raise awareness of how the plenteous lives of minority groups living in Britain are affected by an ideological nationalist gaze with schools being a site of study for this; yet, the focus remains heavily on how Rebecca is affected, with dilute allusion to Amina’s seemingly slight and unserious discomfort and sorrow.

Having worked as a teacher, Marsh wants to expose through this performance how the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 has implicated not only teachers and the emphasised manner in which they must monitor the behaviours and thinking of students in regards to detection of radicalisation and extremism but the students themselves. The aim of this performance, or so it has been expressed, is to demonstrate how this strategy, associated with the scheme Prevent, is so often ‘misapplied’ by teachers in schools to the detriment of the innocent students it is applied to. This is not exactly what this performance does. The focus remains on Rebecca’s so-called traumatisation. We do not see Rebecca following strategic schemes as teachers must, despite some allusions to reports and laws which make these seem as though tools Rebecca may use to channel her own anxieties towards Amina as opposed to legal procedures she must use as a teacher. This seems very much as though a personal battle. The situation feels repeatable, but we are not in any way informed, or convinced, that this is a widespread issue. In this way, the performance falls far from its aim, which is a shame, as matters like these really need to come to light, and soon.

As for the structure and style of the writing itself, scene length becomes increasingly cinematic as the play goes on. By this I mean that scenes for theatre, particularly for amateur theatre or theatres without the facility to develop highly technical works, tends to be lengthier, dealing with more content in one sitting; otherwise, it seems choppy and often becomes physically and humanly impossible for actors to keep up with the speed of the text, particularly if having to move around the stage to assume various positions, etc. This is the case for this performance. Transitions become particularly messy whilst stools and flats are rearranged and actors take to their places, and the energy and dramatic tension permitted by technical components contrast too greatly against the slow disorderly movements. On a rather similar note, dialogue is written in most places as fragmented — episodic, one might say — and this causes a friction when it is performed in a realistic style, especially against the stylised movement that occurs sporadically throughout the performance. I would pay attention to areas spread over the text where this friction is happening.

On the topic of style and movement, the overture for this performance is beautiful, crisp and significantly well organised, yet it bears very little relevance to the rest of the performance. The characters are presented as unified through movement, all three of them performing the exact same movements, if at different paces, and this does not reflect the conflict and difference to come. This remains, however, the only sequence where such stylised movements are actually impactful. Sequences where Swaleh performs distressed and fractured movements alone, usually framed within the glass, are both unseemly and unconvincing and feel as though simple fillers in their needlessness, overdramatic and unprogressive. It also seems erroneous to represent Amina’s perspective/trauma/emotions in this interpretive, implicit and almost animalistic way.

One particular visual element that stays consistent throughout the entire performance, however, is the subtitling. I find this to be most distracting and unhelpful. The principal danger of having subtitles is that actors might trip up on lines or deliver their lines in a roundabout and inexact way, missing words or failing to stick to pre-established phrasal formulae, which is all simply irksome for spectators. This was definitely the case for these actors, particularly for Eno at the beginning of the performance who consistently added to or omitted elements of her lines and delivered lines too soon, having to repeat them again later. Whilst this did not affect momentum, it most certainly affected both realism and our reading of specific moments. What did affect momentum, however, was when subtitles stopped projecting, only to correct themselves and skip themselves through to catch up with the action on stage. Furthermore, when projected onto two or more flats, the gap between these meant that certain letters were invisible. To write honestly, I cannot really understand what the intention behind these subtitles would be. Perhaps they were intended to imply conflict between the characters, with Rebecca’s lines being projected onto one side of the stage and in one font and Jamilah’s lines being on another side in a different font, yet this is not consistent throughout and so the effect of this is utterly thwarted, and the difference in fonts remains simply unseemly. Perhaps the intention was to literarise the play, drawing our attention to the imagined and fictional aspects of it to moralise the text and to heighten our analytical reading of it, but, again, this is thwarted by the other plenteous fictional elements such as a stringent psychological realism or overly stylised physical movement. More simply, perhaps the subtitles were just that, subtitles, intended for the hard of hearing, in which case I would commend this, as captioning should appear more commonly in theatre, but I would also say that much more attention should be paid to the legibility and speed of these: as mentioned above, letters are often missing, text is sometimes too small, and lagging/skipping occurs far too frequently. So, the significance of these subtitles is highly questionable; they should not just be included for design purposes or for mere impact but should have specific functions. All of this being said, the blurring/bleeding red-white subtitles which echo Amina’s criticisms of Rebecca are most poignant and aid us to comprehend Rebecca’s mentality that little bit better. I would have liked, however, to see a similar thing for those comments/moments that stick in Amina’s head.

This is a good performance with very good intentions, but it just needs to realign these with the material it is presenting. At the moment, the dramatic text is presented in a manner far too fictionalised and esoteric to be sufficiently educative and informative, and presenting only the teacher’s side of the situation –– and, at that, an account which still leaves room for speculation and misunderstanding –– further distances us from the hard-hitting truths this play wishes to convey. One could argue that Rebecca’s is the only side Marsh can successfully and genuinely represent, but Marsh is already or has already been in a field of work where such information to bulk up the factuality of this text is readily accessible. It is clear that only his personal worriments and observations are the fabric of this play, and this is far too subjective an account.

The only other thing I have left to comment on is, rather aptly, the play’s ending. This was far too abrupt, the content feeling unfinished — and not in an insightful, representative or compelling way — and tech failing to cooperate with action, as consistently the case. I do hope that there was a technical difficulty on the night that I watched the performance, that there was supposed to be a blackout and stop in music, rather than a shift to natural lighting; if not, this ending is even diluter.

“A good play with commendable intentions but in need of refinement in its articulacy, both textually and theatrically.”


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