Liberian Girl

The CLF Art Café, The Bussey Building,

For a first play Diana Nneka Atuona’s Liberian Girl is remarkable if not always entirely comprehensible thanks to the authenticity of the accents of the cast’s Liberian boy soldiers. But Matthew Dunster’s Royal Court production, now transferred to Peckham’s Bussey Building, also brings the violence and mayhem of Liberia’s civil war home in no uncertain fashion in its promenade style, or as some prefer `immersive’ staging.

Whatever the adjective, the proximity of the actors – mostly very young – and the intensity of their performances creates an atmosphere already made ominous in Anna Fleischle’s sand-strewn jungle setting and Philip Gladwell’s subfusc lighting.

Atuona, a vivid testimony to the success of the Court’s Theatre Local Peckham young Writers Group captures with alarming success the disastrous combination of drugs, illiteracy and gullibility of the boy soldiers who were sucked into Liberia’s fifteen year civil war.

No wonder it won the 2013 best new play Alfred Fagon award and even more impressively was staged as part of the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, chaired by William Hague and Angelina Jolie in 2014. For Liberian Girl, as the title suggests, is a young woman’s story of sexual violence and what it takes to survive in horrific circumstances.

Juma Sharkah plays Martha, a teenager who, when her village is over-run by the rebels and her grandmother is murdered, is forced into becoming a `boy’ soldier, hiding her true identity and gender. In a remarkable debut, Sharkah conveys fear, bewilderment, a strutting capacity to conform and kill, to perform simulated sexual acts but also showing a young woman ultimately bound by the dictates of her female body.

Dunster’s sensitive production, interestingly segregating its audience into male and female, induces a sense of horror without ever resorting to over-sensationalism despite scenes of rape, random killings and macabre fighting regalia.

Atuona presents a chaotic and bloody existence, feeding into an all too easy stereotype of African mayhem through relationships, the detail of which are sometimes lost in the whirlwind of pubescent macho energy.

But no one can doubt her ability or the play’s power to ultimately wrest a kind of sympathy from the plight of these dangerously bloodthirsty and naive recruits. Sobering.

First published in Reviewsgate Feb 2015