Theatre review: Niqabi Ninja

First published in The Times, Thursday August 19 2021

Two Stars

There is a lot going on in Sara Shaarawi’s immersive audio theatre piece. Originally written for the stage, the new format is ideal for audiences tentatively returning to live performance post-Covid. The intimacy of the audio play is just one strand in a multilayered production that also includes graphic artworks by Gehan Mounir, viewed while walking around Edinburgh at sunset.

Conceived as a response to mob sexual assaults during political demonstrations in Tahrir Square, Cairo, in 2012-14, Shaarawi’s subject feels timelier than ever. Rather than zoom in on a single, harrowing incident, the playwright offers a fuller portrait of insidious sexual violence against women that is omnipresent in Egyptian society and beyond. Some of the more uncomfortable elements of the story of Hana (played in Catrin Evans’s production by Rebecca Banatvala) story, include her account of being ogled and harassed while buying her first bra, a pattern that persists, becoming more overt and aggressive as she moves through her teens and into adulthood.     


While Hana’s description of the “constant fear” she endures, and the recurring image of groping, grabbing hands, are unsettling, the impact of the writing is increasingly undermined by a confused production. Shaarawi’s play is episodic, with each chapter pegged to one of Mounir’s precise, evocative illustrations. As there are only six of these staging posts on the route, we are asked to hover in the same spot for long stretches, waiting for the expansive, circuitous script to catch up with the picture in front of us.  


In the collaboration between Shaarawi, Evans and Mounir, there is a laudable attempt to harness the vitality of the graphic novel format, but ultimately this leads to some frustrating lurches in tone. The title character, a vengeful, knife-wielding alter ego, only really comes into focus towards the end, and, though the play’s observations about gendered violence are inarguable, these are cheapened by the final descent into melodrama. An actual graphic novel on this subject, created by the same people but with a more dynamic interplay of words and images, would be a more intriguing prospect.  

Box office: 0131 473 2000, to August 28

Author: Allan Radcliffe

I am a writer, freelance journalist, subeditor and theatre critic, based in South Queensferry. My short fiction has been published in anthologies such as Out There, Elsewhere, The Best Gay Short Stories, ImagiNation, Markings, Gutter, New Writing Scotland and Celtic View. I have won the Scottish Book Trust's New Writer's Award and several of my stories have been adapted for broadcast on BBC Radio 4. As a journalist I write regularly for The Times, the Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday, Sunday Herald, Sunday Times, Metro, Big Issue and I was formerly assistant editor of The List magazine.

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