In Echoes, written by Henry Naylor and directed by the playwright and Emma Buttler, Tillie (Felicity Houlbrooke), a Victorian British woman, and Samira (Filipa Braganca), a Muslim UK citizen, are the same age, but separated by time and culture. They both appear onstage throughout the production, remaining near but unaware of one another as they relate their stories back and forth in tandem. Each is silent as the other speaks and the intrigue is in understanding how reflections of past colonialism are mirrored in present-day social discrimination and how present-day cultural tensions echo history. The women take turns relating what they experienced on their journeys to another part of the world. Though they are separated by over a century and a half, their situations and motivations run increasingly parallel.
The conceptualization is fascinating. Tillie, dressed in a typical long white Victorian dress, is the counterpart or chiaroscuro of Samira, who is dressed in a black niqab, though not a complete burqa with head veil or face mask. Nevertheless the women, as distinct as night from day, are similar in their inner longings, their responses to disastrous choices they make, and their realizations that paternalism has oppressed and violated them and forced them into a morass from which they may never escape unless through a cataclysm. Culturally, externally, they represent the opposite sides of the same coin as women. Internally, they are facsimiles of one another, as they devolve into the anger and abuse that is their portion as people who must obey and serve the males they chose to be beholden to.
The play opens with each explaining her experiences and feelings living in different times in the same location, Ipswich, England. Tillie is a woman in empire-rich Victorian times, but with very limited prospects. For her, propriety and the “delicate” nature of discrete female gentry dictate that she cannot seek employment. Samira is in present-day Ipswich in a UK culture where she feels denigrated and betrayed as a Muslim “outsider” amid criticisms and backlash about the Syrian refugee crisis that is overwhelming Europe and the UK. Prompted by a lack of purposefulness, excitement, and prospects of anything tenable and vibrant, both Samira and Tillie feel caged in and pressured by their surroundings and situations.
Though the playwright does not specifically clarify, both characters’ backgrounds are easily understood with a minimum of references. For Tillie living in 19th-century Victorian England with its impossible walls of class, gender and social strictures, the only way out is marriage to someone worthy and exciting who stirs her. However, the men her father brings around for the courting games are not only uninteresting, they do not equal her education or stature. Bored, she continually affronts them and provokes her father’s ire. How does one meet the romantic, male ideal in Victorian Ipswich? You don’t! Tillie envisions the rest of her life in the solitude of spinsterhood.
In the present day, Samira must confront similar boundaries, as a Muslim alienated by a subtly stratified society which increasingly views Muslims with suspicion, cultural reprobation and disdain. Unlike Tillie who cannot work, Samira has a job, but in a sub-par clerical position while maintaining an A average in high school. She feels misunderstood, unappreciated in a menial job, and upset that her religion and ethnicity are being misrepresented and used against her. An elected representative refers to Muslims as the “fifth column” while painting the predominately Christian culture white. Samira’s boiling point comes when she is fired because the boss thinks she is swearing at a customer.
At 17, both woman seek excitement, a mission in life, a self-created identity, a purpose and freedom from being stultified. Instead of methodically planning to escape the “Ipswich doldrums,” they allow themselves to become victims of their own youthful impulses and lack of imagination when someone offers an opportunity for a change of scenery, the allure of a faraway place, and greatness of purpose.
Each is led by someone familiar to her: Tillie by her brother, Samira by her best friend. Both select their adventures based upon inspiration from their religion: Tillie, to do her Christian duty, and Samira, to go to Syria (named a Paradise) and embrace the new Caliphate. Neither investigates or evaluates the place that is being offered to her. Nor do they investigate the viability of the situation and conditions that will follow upon arrival. As they leap, it is with abandon and naive enthusiasm. As they fly into the arms of fate, they embrace the promise that there is a marriage and a man in their future who will “take them away” from themselves and establish a life for them in which they will be transfigured and transported from the mundane.
It’s a truism that it’s better to not wish too hard for something because you just might get what you wish for. Tillie and Samira achieve their wishes and arrive at their new destination. Both marry and indeed, both are changed – but not in the manner of their “great expectations,” rather in a manner that enlightens them with the truth about their destiny as women and about the echoes of the divine they see for themselves, which men have not proscribed for them.
Finally, they are taken along a soul journey through violence, which carries them to the door of dangerous personal freedom, and autonomy from the religious proscriptions they once embraced. It is then they become catalysts of change and cultural exchange. Indeed, the ambiguity of the conclusion is that not only might Samira and Tillie be soul sisters across the chasm of time, their relationship and identity may even be more acute.
The actresses carry the hour-long production, which is spare of sets and other dramatic spectacle. The production relies completely on their interactions with the audience, who hear and envision their accounts through their avid storytelling. This is tantamount to two solo performances side-by-side, separated by time but unified and interrelated in theme. Nothing distracts from the measured and intense performances. We are captivated by the women’s stark journeys and empathize as we watch both women move toward the abyss. We are provoked to realize that though there have been changes in cultural landscape and national boundaries, Tillie’s tale juxtaposed with the modern-day social and cultural context of Samira’s reveal the dominoes that have fallen inexorably one upon the other in a trail from past to present.
The play describes how we got from there to here, superimposing the image of the past onto the present. Where the directors and playwright shine is in conveying the theme of bondages that women create for themselves. If they accept old paternalistic strictures conveyed into the present, men and women will be unable to abide together in harmony and enlightenment with themselves and other cultures. As long as men still employ chauvinism to oppress the vulnerable, they will only enslave themselves with brutal behaviors, regardless of how natty the suit, fearsome the headgear, or shiny the brass on the military uniform.
On a global level Naylor’s themes roundly resonate. The playwright reveals that if men continue to assert their bullying dominance in empire building, as the British so assiduously did in the past, and as Western civilization and various groups around the world continue to do in the present (revealed through the commercialization of weaponry), the rot and disease of the soul will permeate the relationships between cultures and between men and women.
By the play’s conclusion, it is the women who rise up and overthrow their oppressors. Quaint notion? Perhaps. However, as the playwright suggests, a kind of redemption is possible for women when they defiantly embrace their own freedom and autonomy, even if it is through violent means and an ironic refusal to acknowledge anti-traditional acts as blasphemous. Women are the creators, Tillie and Samira assert. That is why men “contain women’s voices” in an “everlasting war.”
Echoes runs at 59E59 Theaters until May 4.