“You can forget about prayer because this is the place God forgot.” Those words, uttered by Commander Hell Fire to his Small Boys Unit, perfectly describe the grim world of Liberian Girl. A world where women are second-class citizens, forced into domestic and sexual slavery by drug-addled, prepubescent boys and their masters: a world where one of the few means of escape for a young girl is to shed her femininity and pretend to be one of the boys.
Liberian Girl, the new play by first-time writer, Diana Nneka Atuona, takes place in the early stages of the country’s civil war, as Charles Taylor and his National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) throw the country into fourteen years of unimaginable violence. Analysts estimate that approximately 250,000 people died in the Liberian civil war, and thousands more were displaced. The play is the story of Martha, a teenage girl from a humble background, who pretends to be a boy when she is captured by NPFL rebels and is forced to join their ranks.
Taylor has become well-known for his use of child soldiers during the war. Many will be familiar with the images of young men with bloodshot eyes wearing stained dresses and wigs over their army fatigues, as they spread terror across the countryside. Director Jean-Stephane Sauvaire’s nightmarish 2008 film, Mad Dog, the tale of a teenage rebel and his band of killers, fearlessly captured the senselessness of the period.
In a similar vein, Atuona’s play focuses on the figure of the child soldier, the experience is rendered all the more visceral here as live theatre.
Within the intimate confines of the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, director Matthew Dunster and designer Anna Fleischle have used lighting, smell and sound to create a deeply, powerful and immersive experience. The brilliant young cast push and shove the audience throughout the performance, often making direct eye contact as they bark orders. Initially, the effect is unsettling and viewers stifle awkward smiles at the interaction. However the action soon becomes too compelling, and by the end of the play, audience members comfortably cross the set, unable to resist the urge to get a good view.
Period radios, dotted around the walls, are turned on by the cast, blaring out Bob Marley or snippets of news. Smoke and the regular sound of gun shots prevent the audience from slipping into passiveness. The viewer feels constantly on edge, even in the quietest moments; especially in the quietest moments. For anyone who has lived through prolonged civil war, it is a reminder of the constant anxiety it engenders. For those who have not, it is a very small taste of the restlessness felt by those displaced by conflict.
“All I want is for you to let me rest…please…Let me rest” begs Finda, a girl captured by the rebels. Played by Weruche Opia, who delivers a startlingly raw performance. Finda embodies the women on whose bodies a daily war is waged by the rebels. Her weakness is counter-balanced by the quiet strength of lead Juma Sharkah, whose Martha longs to escape the traditional path prescribed to women in her community. Ironically war allows her to do so, although at a price. Liberian Girl is a frightening coming of age tale, couched in a bold and beautiful production.