How on earth do you make a play on FGM that is realistic, truthful, painful in its honesty, yet also engages, never condescends, doesn’t circle the problem and is even warm and, at time, even witty? I’ve no idea. But somehow – somehow – playwright Charlene James has managed it.
Cuttin’ It is superb. Superb both in conception, and superb in its execution. It unfurls like a terrible, tender torture that, by its finale, had most of the audience with their head in their hands, or their hands covering their mouths.
The play follows two Somali-born schoolgirls who happen to go to the same school. One, Muna (Adelayo Adedayo), has been in Britain all her life. She sits on the top deck of the bus, loves Rihanna, speaks completely in English (her Somali spoken, reluctantly, only with her mother) and considers herself British in every way possible.
The other, Iqra (Tsion Habte), has only just arrived. Unlike Muna, she wears her hijab to school, has never heard Rihanna’s Diamonds, and sits alone on the bottom deck of the bus nursing nightmares of her time in desperate and dangerous refugee camps, and the murders of her parents and siblings in the war.
Yet these two girls, so different on the outside, share a pain – physical and mental – that separates them from all others in their class.
The play is devised as two monologues. Like cultures, they remain separate for a while – the two schoolgirls observing each other from a distance. But a series of events sees their worlds collide – and that wall between them come crashing down.
The two girls are the only characters in this play – their voices, rightly, the ones that need to be heard. This is their story, this is their pain. And it brings into sharp focus the desperate, lonely battles these girls fight as they wrestle with the shame and pain of their shared legacy.
And their shared present. For, as Charlene James makes clear, this cutting of young girls is happening right here, right now, in this country. To girls you see every day. They sit next to us on buses, pass us by on the Tube. This is a problem for all of us and we need to care, and we need to take action.
But it’s the crushing finale that will stay with you long after the lights rise up on the end of this play. Cuttin’ It has a sting in its tail. Not only does it not shy away from its subject matter – forcing us to confront it almost as much as the girls who are cut have to – but it reinforces the desperate complexity of the problem. And how difficult it will be to challenge and eradicate.
Both of these actors deliver stunning performances – Adelayo Adedayo’s initial witty repartee a brilliant contrast to Tsion Habte’s seeming insecurity. And both flip that so brilliantly as it becomes clear how each handles the terrible pain of FGM.
Gbolahan Obisesan’s direction is deceptively simple – the two young girls roam up and down the steps of the brutalist architecture that comprises the set from Joanna Scotcher. But these are steps framed with poignant blood-red fencing. And the girls run and hide amongst the steps, as much as play and wander.
But there’s no doubt that it’s the writing from Charlene James that stuns. It’s effective and striking and utterly unflinching. Can we get this play on the school curriculum, please?
Young Vic Theatre, London to June 11, 2016
The Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 14 – Saturday 18 June 2016
Royal Court Theatre, London, Friday 23 June – Wednesday 23 July 2016
Sheffield Crucible, Sheffield, Wednesday 20 – Saturday 13 July 2016
The Yard Theatre, London, Tuesday 26 – Saturday 30 July 2016