#StoryTelling is a matter of life and death

The play, Piece of Silk, is a powerful study of the experiences of women survivors of domestic abuse – an experience that knows no ethnic, national or class boundaries.

The claustrophobic, small, dark space of a fringe theatre upstairs in a London pub is the perfect setting for Jennie Buckman’s new play, ‘Piece of Silk’, derived from the Arabian Nights story of Scheherazade and the experiences of women survivors of domestic violence.

Sitting cramped and close up to the action, the audience is confronted with the raw reality of control, family dynamics and love gone wrong. Living under the same roof, with escape hard to imagine or effect, the characters in this powerful study bring home to us how, as Buckman puts it, ’story-telling is a matter of life and death.’

Shaz (Tanya Vital) and her sister Dunya (Samantha Shellie) are North London girls in their late teens. Shaz likes shopping, fooling around and having a laugh. Their father, originally from the Indian sub-continent, is dead. Their Mum (Heather Coombs) is a white woman who welcomes her late husband’s son, Sami (Devesh Patel), from overseas into their home and agrees that he should stay on while she takes a holiday. Shaz works as a seamstress in a bridal shop and is close to her sister Dunya who has an anxiety disorder and never leaves the house. Shaz’s big thing is her vlog – she gives her imagination and creativity free rein online and has a spirit undiminished by the constraints of her circumstances. Like Scheherazade she eventually uses this talent to survive what is to come. The girls have grown up with a local white boy, Billy (Jack Bence), who is both witness to, and participant in, their lives.

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Sami’s arrival precipitates a visceral drama that starts in love and ends in tragedy. Sami is appalled by Shaz’s teenage brashness, lack of deference and the tongue-in-cheek sexual references in her  vlog. With the best of intentions, in a misplaced belief that he is fulfilling his duty of care as the ‘man of the family’ following their father’s death, he begins to control the young women and develop a friendship with Billy. Driven by the patriarchal attitudes of his upbringing, Sami hatches a plan to take Shaz and Dunya abroad to visit their father’s family. When Shaz resists, there is a riveting confrontation between them. This scene is both the heart of the play and yet one of the weakest. Accusations of fascism, patriarchy and ‘othering’ fly in a way that doesn’t ring true to the speech idioms of these down to earth characters making the play more polemical than it needs to be.

Sami separates the sisters from contact with Billy by taking Shaz’s phone and locking them in the cellar, saying that it was shame about the way his daughters behaved that killed their father.

The theatre’s tiny performing space, in the deft hands of Set Designer Matilde Marangoni and Director Tania Azevedo, shape shifts into a range of places where these differing worlds collide and the story unfolds. We are with the girls in the cellar, in a night club with Billy and Sami, at the bridal shop with Shaz and her boss, Ruby (Heather Coombs) who is suicidal because of the domestic abuse she is also suffering. Props are used sparingly.  Frames of hard metal fencing are rolled around the floor to create the rooms, doors and walls that confine (rather than provide comfort and safety). A floor-to-ceiling gauze provides the screen onto which Shaz’s vlog posts are projected. It is also the soft draping behind which is the haven where Billy and Shaz come to realise and express their adult love for each other.

As the play reaches it denouement Sami talks about the ‘box of treasures’ he has containing his father’s letters. It reveals that his attitudes and actions towards his half sisters are driven in part by his own internal conflicts – especially about his sexuality –  and his relationship with his father who says his son is ‘not quite wholesome’.

Even a minor character like shopkeeper Ruby provides another insight into the complex web of emotion, identity, psychology, cultural influences and inequalities at play. Her story, revealed as she and Shaz work on a wedding dress for a customer, shows that the play’s central theme of the abuse of women within the family crosses continents, that patriarchy is not restricted to cultures where arranged marriages are common, where women are regarded as ‘pieces of silk’, ruined when they are ‘trampled in the mud’.

The production brings everything to bear on Buckman’s powerful story-telling. Sound, lighting, music and video are thoughtfully and creatively designed to enhance this contemporary updating of the Arabian Nights’ most famous character. Scheherazade, with the help of her sister Dunyazade, avoids death at the hands of the king by telling him a new story every night for 1,000 nights.  Shaz records a story for her vlog while she and Dunya are held prisoner by Sami, finding resilience in turning the tables and making up a tale about a prince who is about to be castrated and maimed but who is finally liberated.

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The two also win their freedom but at a price when, in a scuffle with Sami who tries to kiss him, Billy is fatally injured.

The strong cast tackles the demands of this complex play with verve. Tanya Vital invests Shaz with an endearing openness and confidence from which she draws convincing strategies of resistance and survival. Jack Bence is an impressive and versatile performer as the sound young bloke who falls for his ebullient childhood friend and Devesh Patel, with his thin frame and gaunt face, is all the more menacing for not looking physically strong or powerful. Heather Coombs, in several parts, brings light and shade to the drama and Samantha Shellie as Dunya is a vulnerable counterpoint to Shaz’s strength and agency as it is tested by Sami’s determination to subjugate them.

In writing the play, Jennie Buckman worked closely with Southall Black Sisters, the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation and Not Shut Up to capture the nature of an experience that knows no ethnic, national or class boundaries. At times the drama strains with its determination to meld ideas about racism, sexism and homophobia into the central theme of coercive control by men of women, with violence waiting in the wings, but its well-drawn characters, with strong direction from Tania Azevedo, deliver an emotionally engaging story to make us understand and think harder about the difficult subject of domestic abuse.

The play runs until July 2 2016 at the Hope Theatre, 207 Upper Street, Islington London N1 1RL.

Source: Open Democracy