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Image: Hen and Chickens Theatre
“Every year 15 million girls are married as children …
28 girls every minute, 1 every 2 seconds” (Girls Not Brides).
‘AISHA’ is about an underage girl that was forced into marriage with a man triple her age.
Aisha was sold in exchange for an expensive dowry.
She is bound to domestic duty, denied every human right, abused, and forced to submit to any sexual act her husband wishes to bestow upon her.
How will she continue to cope?
“Arms pinned down at each corner of this crux - a handmaid crucified by the hands of lust.” - Aisha
Sometimes, admirable intentions, hard work and genuine sincerity are simply not sufficient to produce watchable and meaningful theatre that can shift attitudes and prompt behavioural change in society, or at the very least stimulate valuable discussion.
Such, I'm sad to say, is the case with this debut work from writer AJ who, apart from scripting this play, decided to form his own company and direct his own piece in order to bring it to the stage.
I don't doubt for a single moment that AJ is sincere in his determination to highlight a hugely troubling issue that is most certainly deserving of consideration, and potentially capable of providing moving and riveting drama at the same time.
But this play simply fails to work on a number of crucial levels.
Aisha is a young girl, born in Dagenham to parents of Nigerian origin.
At the age of 14 she was forced by her parents to become the 'wife' of a much older man, in exchange for money.
Armed with the cash, her parents returned to Africa leaving Aisha to face a traumatically painful existence with a man who treats her simply as a possession to do with as he pleases and brutalising her in the most appalling (and sometimes inexplicable) ways.
The initial scene with Aisha, now aged 17, talking to the audience on her own is appropriate to start filling-in some of the background detail and Laura Adebisi offers a sensitive portrayal of a young girl desperately trying to cope with her predicament.
However, her spoken words sound like text from a rather wordy novel simply cut and paste into dialogue without alterations to make it sound natural or conversational.
Even though we're told that Aisha is a keen learner - and we see her (unnecessarily) reciting words from a dictionary to ram-home the point - the dialogue still feels grossly contrived and, I suspect, rather awkward for the actor to deliver.
That initial scene, though, is overly stretched and the pace throughout is ponderous, with unimportant action slowing dramatic progress and reducing any tension which has been built-up.
For example we see Aisha laboriously cutting real vegetables to prepare meals - a matter where pretending would have been more apt, if required at all.
When we eventually get to meet Aisha's 'husband', he says almost nothing and there are unduly-long periods when we see him fiddling meticulously with cutlery and then simply leaving the stage again.
So, we don't really get to understand anything about his motivations: why he seeks to treat his 'wife' so violently and what is stopping him from loving her - which he clearly doesn't even though she is obviously beautiful and highly desirable.
But we do get to see him punishing Aisha in rather graphic detail, which proved too much for one member of the audience who fled at that point.
The play is far too long - the essentials could easily have been pruned to a running time of an hour or less and that would have helped focus the entire enterprise on the basic issue.
As it is, racism, terrorism, religion, and even brexit (among many other matters) cloud the central concern - forced child 'marriage' - so we're left wondering just what the play is really about and what we're meant to take away from it.
Extraneous characters add to the confusion too - a loud, foul-mouthed white man called 'Mr White' (supposedly a friend of Aisha's husband from university), a social worker of some kind who threatens Aisha in a way that would almost certainly lead to dismissal from her profession, and a fumbling doctor who visits Aisha to carry-out an ultrasound scan, all detract from rather than add to what should have been an unbearably affecting story.
Though we do get pointers about the causes of forced marriage - tradition, culture and money in particular - the weaknesses inherent in the composition and execution of the drama leave many questions unanswered and the overall, disappointing impression of a lost opportunity.
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