In preparation for Sightline Productions’ performance of Henry Naylor’s play, Angel, I chatted to Director, Hiba Benhamed and actress Gayaneh Vlieghe, during their rehearsal. I asked them questions about the decisions behind their production, and watched a few of their scenes in rehearsal.
Angel is a dramatic monologue based on the true story of Rehana, the ‘Angel of Kobane’, who became a symbol of resistance against the Islamic State.
Why have you chosen to perform this play?
Hiba: I saw it at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2016, and it’s the best play I’ve seen. I reread the play over the summer and I learned so much more. When I watched it at the Fringe, I missed so many onstage details, so a lot more made sense after I’d read the script.
It also has a really strong middle-eastern female – it has no generic males like Hamlet. I don’t care for those, but I really care for the character in Angel.
Mostly though, I wanted to put on a show that really spoke to me as it contained characters that I could recognise in my own life. The context of the play features regularly on our televisions and in the news but it feels so distant. A different country, continent – an alien universe. The show succeeds in bringing something that we only see on TV personally to the audience. It makes the audience care about the characters that they would otherwise dismiss.
How have you found doing a monologue?
Gayaneh: Intense. I thought I liked the attention, but now I’m the only person onstage and people are watching only me, I want to sink in a hole. Also, the criticism is aimed only at me – when there are more actors, the focus isn’t totally on you. I’ve had to be open-minded to criticism. As an actress, I shouldn’t need validation, but I do need it sometimes, so I know I’m doing OK.
Hiba: Sorry!!! That’s something the Assistant Director and I have also discussed. We’ve been trying to give a balance of praise and criticism. In fact, we were just talking the other day that we need to give Gayaneh more praise, because she’s doing really well.
Gayaneh: Also, the play consists of a different kind of monologue. I play seventeen characters altogether – Rehana tells her story by acting out her characters. So, one minute I will be playing a stroppy teen, the next an ISIS fighter. Most characters are male – only four are female – so this is another consideration.
Has it been difficult alternating between so many different characters?
Gayaneh: Yes, we definitely wanted to avoid making it slap stick, because that’s not how the play is intended. Creating a clear distinction between characters has been difficult. None of the characters have ticks, for example. So, I’ve been trying to make changes in my voice to differentiate characters, which is easier to manipulate.
How have you dealt with all of the violence in the play?
Hiba: We’ve made sure to not overdramatize it. We want to portray it thoughtfully and honestly.
Gayaneh: My character is used to seeing violence. We’ve got to show the audience how she’d realistically react. She has some comedic stories, for example. We’re not taking the violence lightly, we’re just taking a different approach.
Hiba: Yes, Rehana has seen lots of violence. The audience can feel for themselves – we don’t need to tell them how to feel.
What has been the biggest challenge of this production?
Hiba: Striking the balance between Rehana being chatty and having too much conversation.
Gayaneh: Working out who she is. I haven’t figured that out yet.
Why have you chosen Hatfield Chapel as your venue?
Hiba: It’s small and intimate and it feels theatrical, like it could be a theatre venue. Also, I was involved in a show last year where we performed in this Chapel, and it worked well.
As you’re performing one night in the Chapel and two nights in another Hatfield room, are you adapting the set in any way?
Hiba: No, we’re keeping it the same. For example, we’ll pretend there’s no steps in both sets. Adapting the set for two venues would be a lot for Gayaneh to learn on top of all her lines.
What have rehearsals looked like for you?
Gayaneh: We have two and a half weeks of rehearsal altogether, and have been rehearsing for around three hours everyday. We’re really relieved the play isn’t today, as was originally planned.
How much tech have you used?
Hiba: We haven’t gone crazy with the lighting, but we are using some. We aren’t using any extra sounds because I don’t like random noises, like the sound of a door slamming. I always wonder what the point of having an odd sound is in a play. I like an all or nothing soundscape. So for this, we’ve got no sound.
What would you like the audience to take away from the production?
Hiba: This play was used as a showcase for a specific actress. The production tells the story of a strong middle-eastern woman. She’s a character you’ll never know, but she exists.
I just think it’s important to look at this cool story. I hate when people say that their show is important – it’s simply theatre.
Gayaneh: Yeah, theatre is meant to entertain.
Hiba: I mean, is a production with violent themes meant to entertain or inform? I’m getting philosophical here, but in Angel there are so many highs and lows and so much action. It’s meant to entertain.
Gayaneh: Yeah, you go from laughing, to crying, then suddenly you’re terrified.
Why should people come and see the play?
Hiba: It is honestly the best play ever: there has never been anything like it.
Gayaneh: There’s nothing else like this in Durham right now. And it provides an insight into a life we don’t often hear about, especially in Durham.
From watching two scenes in rehearsal, I would recommend seeing this play for five reasons:
1. Gayaneh transitions rapidly from being scared to descriptive, and that’s fascinating to watch.
2. Gayaneh acts as if she is actually seeing the gun, the dog, etc. – her focus on imaginary objects is impressive.
3. The changes in character are communicated really effectively.
4. Hiba picks up on so many details of Gayaneh’s performance, so the particulars will be nailed by the time of the production.
5. It’s a captivating story, one that will keep you entertained for the whole play.
Sightline Productions’ Angel is on 31st January and 2nd-3rd February at 8pm in Hatfield Chapel and the Birley Room in Hatfield.