Editor's Desk 

Liberian Girl review – striking debut evokes horror of civil war

Michael Billington


As part of its season of plays about revolution, the Royal Court brings us a work about the first Liberian civil war, from 1989 to 1996, which led to Charles Taylor’s election as president. It marks the debut of a 31-year-old Peckham playwright, Diana Nneka Atuona, and is clearly the product of research and imagination rather than direct experience. While it might do more to put the war in a political context, it gains a striking immediacy from Matthew Dunster’s immersive production.

Atuona focuses on a 14-year-old girl, Martha, whose hopes of going to a bush school are checked when rebel forces threaten her village. Disguised as a boy, Martha sets off for Monrovia with her grandmother and, when they are separated at a checkpoint, has no choice but to join one of the child units fighting for Taylor’s cause. What follows is a chilling account of how Martha, under the name of Frisky, is forced to adapt to the teenage bloodlust that characterised these units without sacrificing her sense of self.

It would have been helpful to learn more about the internecine power struggle between Taylor and his archrival, Prince Johnson. What comes across strongly, however, is the macho posturing of these child soldiers. They practise rape and murder yet clearly yearn for a surrogate father in Taylor, whom they call “the Papay”. Martha’s own identity crisis is touchingly explored in her tender relationship with Finda, who has been raped and who becomes her devoted follower. Even if it is obvious that being shunted around the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs by rifle-toting actors is not the same as being caught up in civil war, we do catch a glimpse of the drug-induced hysteria that pervaded these boys’ units.

Juma Sharkah, in her stage debut, vividly captures Martha’s enforced maturity. There is also strong support from Weruche Opia, Valentine Olukoga and Cecilia Noble, in a impressive play that opens our eyes to Liberia’s past and evokes civil war’s horrific capacity to institutionalise male violence.

Until 31 January. Box office: 020-7565 5000. Venue: Royal Court, London. Then at Bussey Building and the Bernie Grant arts centre, both in London.

Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

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