“Women are not free anywhere in this world until all women in the world are free.” This is the mission statement of Mama Quilla Theatre Company that presents its new show, The Singing Stones at the Arcola this month.
Inspired by the now deleted blog posts of women protesting in Tahrir Square, and on the frontlines of Tunisia and Kurdistan, this triad of new plays is written and directed by political playwright Kay Adshead.
“Although they were briefly celebrated, these women’s voices have been ignored, denied and forgotten since the revolution” Adshead says.
On a micro level the production is an effort to sustain the voices of women who, despite popular uprising, still suffer persecution and oppression around the world.
A third of the protesters in Tahrir square in 2011 were women, many of whom were subjected to so-called ‘virginity tests’ in the street. Some were raped and killed and almost all were censored.
The challenge for Adshead as the writer behind the piece was how to interpret such harrowing material for a theatre audience.
“How do I make art out of this?” she asks. “How do I even make sense of it? When I had my daughter I never thought I would be seeing women shot in the street for wanting an education.”
Despite the hard-hitting content the writer-director and her multiethnic, all female cast are at pains to insist that this is not agitprop – it is not a sermon, nor an agitation.
“You won’t feel bombarded by horror or propaganda, it’s about the individual stories of these women” says Tina Gray, a member of the ensemble.
Adshead made her name as an actor in television sitcoms such as One Foot in the Grave and alongside Victoria Wood in Dinnerladies. And her latest show undoubtedly benefits from that experience, infused with humour and her own natural vitality.
The plays have come about partly as a result of collaborations with a host of global artists. World music star Najma Akhta has composed the music and will be performing live in performances until 7 February.
Interspersed with the live performance will be films made by the Syrian theatre group Masasit Mati, whose satirical portrayals of Assad and his government intend to dispel the fear so present in Syria today.
Their medium is finger puppets, which unlike the pamphlets or spray cans of traditional dissenters can be smuggled through military checkpoints with ease.
As those who gathered in Tahrir Square were engaging in politics, so Adshead sees the act of witnessing theatre as a political act. The theatre, she says, is both a collective and an individual experience where people meet face-to-face and ask the question: “How do we live in this world together?”
Mama Quilla has a distinguished history of asking difficult and challenging questions and The Singing Stones looks set to be an urgent response to a continuing global lack of equality
The Singing Stones is at the Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, E8 3DL until 28 February