Female muslim boxers challenge stereotypes in No Guts, No Heart, No Glory at 2014 Edinburgh Festival Fringe
Common Wealth theatre company return to Fringe with play designed to entice non-theatre going audience at Sandy's Boxing Gym
This article is from 2014.
After glorious success with their site-specific work about domestic violence, Common Wealth are off to the gym for a drama featuring female Muslim boxers. Malcolm Jack hears why preparations will continue right up to the first bell
The inspiration for what would eventually become No Guts, No Heart, No Glory reached Common Wealth theatre company co-founder Evie Manning from an unlikely source: her next-door neighbour, a 35-year-old Muslim and mother-of-nine. ‘She said to me that she was doing boxing and would I like to go along,’ Manning recalls. ‘I was really shocked, but then I thought “God, where did that come from: why am I so shocked?”’
You can’t blame her for feeling at least a little surprised by the idea of a mum-of-nine thwacking a punch bag. But it was more so the religious dimension which caused Manning to chastise herself for being so taken aback. After all, who says a Muslim woman can’t pull on a pair of gloves and get in the ring?
It transpires that there’s a growing number of female Muslim boxers like Manning’s neighbour around Britain. Their experiences inform this smart, energetic and switched-on piece, which takes place in a real Edinburgh boxing gym to a thumping live electronic score. The original title was Girl Boxer and then changed to Us Champions before the company settled on No Guts, No Heart, No Glory, a name which suggests the play is not simply about sport. Despite the setting, it’s concerned more with inspiring women (Muslim women in particular) to do whatever they want and to be whomever they want to be, dealing stereotypes and erroneous preconceptions a fat lip in the process.
The likelihood of this presenting one of the most interesting and important productions on the 2014 Fringe increases when you factor in its site-specific setting, and Common Wealth’s proven commitment to successfully engaging non-theatre audiences. Our Glass House was the Bradford-based company’s troubling rumination on domestic violence, staged at last year’s Fringe on a council estate in Wester Hailes to an exceptional response. No Guts, No Heart, No Glory will also occur on the fringes of the Fringe. Specifically, Sandy’s Boxing Gym at Castleview Community Centre in the south-east Edinburgh suburb of Craigmillar.
‘The Fringe has never been to Craigmillar before,’ says Manning. ‘Just as, until last year, it had never been to Wester Hailes. The interesting thing is that we’re making quite experimental works, but people in these areas totally get it. I spoke to a journalist the other week, and she asked “what are the barriers of getting in a non-theatre audience?” And I had to be honest: there aren’t any barriers. People want to see the work, so it’s about coming to them.’
Manning recognises that the Fringe might leave people who don’t naturally gravitate to the centre of Edinburgh feeling a bit isolated from everything that’s going on in August. ‘For us, it’s about going into an area and saying, “this is yours and this is for you”; it’s all about creating that buzz. We get local people in who, despite the Fringe taking place every year in their city, might never have been part of it before.’
Devised in collaboration with four 16 to 19-year-old Muslim female performers, No Guts, No Heart, No Glory unfolds at pace in non-linear, non-narrative fashion, through a tapestry of real experiences woven together from the testimonies of female Muslim boxers around the UK, all of whom Manning and Common Wealth have searched out and interviewed.
One of them is 19-year-old Ambreen Sadiq – a former British Junior National Boxing Champion with serious ambitions of fighting at the Olympics and one day turning pro – who proved such an inspiration that she’s been brought in to effectively ‘coach’ the girls, ensuring their boxing and their stories feel authentic. ‘I don’t see them as actresses, I see them as boxers,’ Sadiq declares of her charges, with a natural, plainspoken assertiveness and earnestness that, like so much she says, belies her years. ‘It’s a play, but I see it as a ring, and they want their coach there to corner them.’
Sadiq has had to fight to get where she is today in more ways than one. Initially attracted to the gym because she was being bullied over her mixed Portuguese-Asian heritage, boxing has now divided her community and family.
She’s received death threats from strangers over the phone and internet, and Sadiq’s own uncle has fallen out with her because of those sporting ambitions. ‘They wouldn’t say it to my face,’ Sadiq comments on the cyberbullies and disapproving friends and relatives, ‘but they’ll say it to my parents or behind a screen. It just makes me push even harder. I want to inspire girls. I’ve never really been involved in a play before but it’s great to do something different. I really want to get my story across to girls my age and inspire them to follow their own dream even if it’s not boxing. Just to do what they want to do, and not what everyone else wants them to do.’
This all suggests a knockout victory for No Guts, No Heart, No Glory, though there is one small complication to overcome. ‘We can only start rehearsing from literally the 1st of August,’ Manning reveals, ‘because it’s Ramadan throughout July and we can’t do that much because the girls are fasting. So we’ve got a two-week period in which we can put it together, and it’s going to be absolutely mad. It’s quite scary, but I thought that was what the Fringe is about. You’re not meant to go there with this perfect play; it’s about putting it on and seeing what happens. Our shows are not made until you put an audience in there anyway.’
Our Glass House garnered excellent reviews last year, and assuming the challenges of a kamikaze rehearsal schedule can be successfully tackled, Manning is confident No Guts, No Heart, No Glory will be equally as well-received. Even if that’s scarcely the point about a piece of community-minded theatre which, as she explains, strives for more direct human outcomes than critical approval. ‘The feedback from local residents makes our day. It’s brilliant to get the reviews that Our Glass House had. But the thing that makes us buzz most is when our next-door neighbour comes around and gives us a thank-you card.’
No Guts, No Heart, No Glory, Sandy’s Boxing Gym, Craigmillar Castle Avenue, 0131 226 0000, 18–21, 25 Aug, 2pm, 22–24 Aug, 4pm, 8pm, £12 (£6).