Two Englishwomen search for salvation in Eastern imperial expansion.
Photo by Carol Rosegg
In Victorian England, getting married and moving to the Middle East meant you were a colonizer, charged with the task of protecting British imperial interests abroad and enriching the Eastern countries you visited through trade. In the contemporary United Kingdom, that move carries quite a different connotation, particularly if the woman is Muslim. And yet, immersed in patriarchal imperial societies in which their own interests are quickly forgotten, two such women might have far more in common than you would imagine.
Enter Echoes by Henry Naylor, part of 59E59 Theaters' annual Brits Off Broadway festival. This piece, the story of two women who leave Ipswich, England to get married and help build an empire, functions as two one-woman shows collaged into one, but the performance is so much more than that. Directed by Naylor and Emma Buttler, the play strips the stage down to its barest elements—no set, props or costume changes and hardly any interaction between the two actresses—and instead creates a pair of fascinating worlds using nothing but words.
Tillie is a Victorian pioneer woman who amuses herself by taunting potential suitors with her superior knowledge of Latin and insect biology, jumps on the chance of adventure by traveling to India and is quickly disillusioned by the clear evidence that English intervention is wreaking havoc on the local economies it seeks to overhaul. Samira is a somewhat religious Muslim girl growing frustrated by the xenophobia and cultural insensitivity of modern English society and chooses to join the Islamic State to live in a place where Muslims and the poor are helped, not scorned. What unites the women is a profound belief that their empire will lead to the betterment of all, which gets them to the Middle East, and marriages that trap them there once they realize just how harmful those new governments are.
Both actresses are engaging, clear-eyed storytellers who expertly embody the various characters in their tales. Filipa Braganca is perhaps more relatable as our contemporary protagonist Samira, while Felicity Houlbrooke's Tillie narrates from a position of assumed aristocracy. And even in their marginalized roles as wives, accessories to the true imperial soldiers, there is still a clear power differential between what white Christian Tillie and Muslim Samira are able to do to revolt against their new oppressive regimes.
For the most part, however, Echoes emphasizes the similarities between the two 17-year-old girls from Ipswich. Both are swayed early on in their stories to make a decision about marriage based on the opinions of other women, while the rest of the play consists of a journey toward learning to think for themselves. When they encounter infidelity on the part of their new husbands, neither indulges in jealousy or competition, only further disillusionment regarding the "perfect" society they once believed they were building. Most importantly, both narratives ultimately validate the women's desire to have their issues and their stories matter in a world in which most of the histories that society values are men's.
Our twin narratives of Echoes both conclude with a mixture of tragedy and triumph as Samira and Tillie make a stand in the only way they can. And while Samira's detailed, graphic end may leave you wanting to know more about Tillie, whose final few months are poetically glossed over, the powerful effect of such an ending cannot be denied. Echoes may be the tale of two women who unwittingly throw their lives away for the dream of a better world, but it is also a play about taking ownership of your own story when nothing else is left to you. And the two women sharing the stage do so with dignity and grace.
Echoes plays at 59E59 through May 4.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.