Writer: Gloria Williams
Director: Lara Genovese
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is one of the toughest topics for theatre to tackle but Gloria Williams’s new play Bullet Hole, showing at the Etcetera Theatre as part of the Camden Fringe Festival, is unafraid to explore the brutal effects of this horrifying practice. Interestingly, rather than assume it happens thousands of miles away in developing countries, Williams sets her play in London where what is seen by advocates as ‘cultural tradition’ clashes violently with modern perspectives on female sexuality.
Cleo has escaped an abusive marriage and seeks refuge at the home of her Aunt Winnie, who has engaged her friend Eve to help take care of their unexpected guest. When Cleo was 7 she underwent an FGM procedure causing her considerable pain ever since and seeks reversal surgery at a local clinic. But Aunt Winnie is a traditionalist who approves of the practice, keeping Cleo prisoner in the hope of changing her mind.
While Williams’ play uses its characters to present all sides of the argument, the audience is left in no doubt of its strident anti-FGM message. But this is more than a disguised political rant, and Williams skillfully integrates facts about its effects with the resulting emotional trauma that affects Cleo for the rest of her life. And Bullet Hole forgoes any unnecessary preamble to launch right into the dark subject matter, with Williams’ writing incorporating graphic and frank discussions between her characters about what FGM involves and the later consequences of sex and childbirth.
Although the arguments become rather circular, as they would in real conversations between two people with opposing views, this show covers a number of themes including the use of religion as an excuse to maintain the practice, the balance of power within marriage and predetermined ideas of female beauty and wifely duty. While Aunt Winnie espouses many of these old-fashioned views, the younger women dismiss them with tales of violence, abuse, bleeding and pain that are the unarguable result of ‘cultural traditions’.
It’s fascinating to see three women debate these topics in a play that is a particularly male view of the world, and while none appear, it is eye-opening to see how little support there is for Cleo in attempting to break away. Bullet Hole is not an easy watch, but there is a clarity and ferocity to Williams’ text that is gripping, educative and moving.
Williams also takes on the central role of Cleo who the audience first sees curled up and afraid to be touched. There is a weariness to Cleo’s struggle against her family and the limitations of her body that Williams evokes well which occasionally leads to eruptions of temper, as well as racking sobs. But despite every setback, Williams gives Cleo a steely determination to have the surgery she needs, and an absolute confidence in her own sense of righteousness which sustains her against the objections she faces.
Brig Bennett makes Winnie much more rounded than just a traditional villain, truly believing in the things she says. Winnie is driven by religion and sees FGM as necessary for female protection, health and hygiene. Even though the audience can see she is entirely misguided, Bennett makes her faith plausible and convincing.
The central relationship of the play is the growing sense of camaraderie between Cleo and Eve (Josephine Samson) who finds herself torn between the two viewpoints. The tussle for Eve’s soul drives much of the play’s central portion, and Samson shows her growing in confidence as Cleo educates her about the effects of FGM. The shy and nervous elements become rather repetitive, but aspects of the performance are a sensitive portrayal of a woman suffering in her own way from the effects of the procedure.
The word ‘brave’ is too readily applied to difficult subjects, but Bullet Hole is unafraid to tackle a difficult topic head-on, dismissing the counter-arguments with examples of the needless agony it causes both physically and emotionally. It is an intelligent piece of writing with a clear message that sends the audience home knowing much more than they did at the start. A brutal but necessary piece of political theatre.
Runs until 6 August 2017 | Image: Lara Genovese