Female genital mutilation (FGM) is reported to affect 130 million women across the world. In National Theatre of Scotland’s Rites, playing at the Tobacco Factory as part of Bristol’s Mayfest, adaptor/director Cora Bissett has fashioned a ninety minute verbatim piece which sensitively guides us through a multitude of perspectives which occasionally churns the stomach, but manages to do this in a production that is sensitive to its material and surprisingly vibrant at times.
Bissett has crafted the piece so that as we hear from a range of different sources: lawyers, teachers, campaigners, students, mothers, fathers and the cutters themselves; we also follow the main narrative of a Gambian student from Glasgow University who discovers more than she bargains for in her first year lectures and takes her own stand. For this is what the piece argues, that FGM is a heinous act perpetrated mainly by men to control women and which has been hidden in cultural appropriation to justify it. In educating the young there is a chance of creating a catalyst for change. Bissett and co-adaptor Yusra Warsama have managed to ensure that a range of opinions are presented, making it clear that the battle ahead may be long and fraught, but things may be changing for the better. Women may now be taking a stand about their own bodies and their own sexuality.
It is well performed by the company of five in Bissett’s production with Janet Kumah particularly standing out in a host of well-defined snapshots before unleashing a voice that almost blows the Tobacco Factory roof off for a song at the finale, that harks back to Bissett’s past history with the NTS, as director of Glasgow Girls and as performer in the wonderful Midsummer, but feels weirdly out of place here, even if it does raise the hairs on the back of the neck and some of the audience up on its feet.
The script is bloodless (no pun intended) however, a result no doubt of most of the evening consisting of snippets of interview rather than scenes of dramatic conflict. When there is, such as a scene where an American academic is confronted by a heckling audience at her own decision to undertake FGM, the piece heats up. Perhaps though, its strength is in its quietness, the subject matter enough to stir the emotions and educate its audience without needing to resort to any dramatic licence. It is left to Kim Beveridge’s vibrant video design and Patricia Panther’s sound work to provide the edge and the rousing final song to move the heart as well as the mind.