Review-Piece by Dena Kirpalani

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Little Stitches, Theatre 503, Arcola and Gate Theatre
Review by Dena Kirpalani

The production of Little Stitches brings more than mere statistics, gruesome images and outrage we so often see in the news in relation to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Instead it tells stories – human stories – of victims, perpetrators, perpetrator-victims and observers, each with their own complex set of emotions and motivations.

In the first of this four-play compendium, you never meet the little girl who is flown off to some unknown location to be ‘cut’. Instead, you hear from her teacher, the ice-cream van man, the air hostess on her flight, the post-woman on her street, the garbage collector. Each of these figures are so close to her and yet remain so far, perpetually caught in a struggle between wanting to say something but not knowing how to intervene and not wanting to appear impolite.

dena speech bubbleThe second piece, and arguably the most powerful, is based on the testimony of a survivor who, despite sharing with us so intimate a story, does not give us her name. She is almost a normal girl – and that is truly horrifying. Because to all outward appearances she is one of us. She is educated. Has a boyfriend. Speaks, talks, dresses just as we do – and yet she must live with the repercussions of something few watching will ever experience.

The third play centres upon a girl in a recovery hut with two women who are paid to look after her. The older of the two women explains to her more nervous compatriot: “Now she is a real woman, sometimes being a real woman is hard!” This is the truth of a struggle all women face and one we can all identify with. But perhaps more importantly, it highlights a simple fact: that beyond this barbaric act, is a culture over-brimming with body-modification practices, perpetuated to re-create and meet a socially constructed ideal of womanhood.

little stitches imageThe fourth, final and most graphic piece shows a young girl finishing school, on the cusp of teenage realisation. She goes home excited at the prospect of the summer holidays only to be ‘cut’. The scene is disturbing and heartrending and delves into the core of the practice. A girl’s life is irrevocably changed before our very eyes, with all of us bearing helpless witnesses to her pain. Beside her voice, is that of the medical professional who is asked by the husband of a woman who has just given birth, to sew her back up. Torn between competing harms posed to his patient, he does what he feels he must and in the end, adds a few extra “little stitches”.Each of these short plays are multi-layered, thought-provoking and for the most part elegantly simple, engaging and entertaining: in that sense the production is subtly spectacular. By humanising the story and making it less about “us” and “them”, we obtain a deeper understanding of what drives a practice few can comprehend. But most importantly, these plays highlight a core fact: that FGM does not occur in a vacuum. It is connected with the wider issues of patriarchy, gendered violence and an over-arching control of women, women’s bodies and sexuality. Each play alludes to a misdirection of love, responsibility and a desire to enhance a woman’s chances for a “good life”, reinforced by a system that reduces a girl to the sum value she holds for a man only. FGM is in no way separate to the wider feminist discourse. It is gender violence, a human rights violation and reflects issues of integration, exploitation, body image, patriarchal control…the list goes on.

Acknowledgement needs to go to the excellent cast that effortlessly bring out a wide array of characters. The simple yet effective set design and creative direction successfully engrosses the audience, leaving viewers coming out of the production not having felt lectured to, but free to talk about FGM openly, and the context in which it continues to happen.