‘No Guts, No Heart, No Glory’ begins with the audience walking into a darkened Queen Street Gym, a venue really hung up on authenticity fetishism with its attempt to recreate the look of an old New York boxing gym. A group of boxers are doing warm-ups, the audience moving around the gym floor as the performers prepare. Simply upon entry, it is clear that this a very different production from anything else playing at the festival.
‘No Guts, No Heart, No Glory’ is produced by the British theatre company Common Wealth. The play (written by Aisha Zia) is about the lives of young British Muslim girls who all have taken up the pugilistic art of boxing. Drawing upon interviews with real girls and co-devised with the play’s cast, the piece is an innovative, engaging and unique production.
The cast move around the gym floor, between the ring and their workout stations, meaning that the audience has to move around the space as their attention is drawn from one area to the next. It creates an effect which breaks down the traditional divide between performers and audiences. In a lot of ways, the direct conversations the actors have with the audience remind me of Bertolt Brecht’s alienation effect, where the idea is that you break down the traditional staging and narrative structures of theatre in order to effect change in the audience, to push them towards enacting the political goals of the play.
The young cast tell their own stories as much as they are telling the stories of their character. Their authenticity feels key to the integrity of the production. The actors come from the same background as their characters, and when they talk about the complicated relationships they have with boxing, or their family, or society, it feels real and heartfelt.
A series of different narratives are told throughout the piece, covering their relationships with boxing, global politics and family. The struggle of dealing with family expectations was one of the narratives which struck me most. At one point in the play a characters tells a story about feeling the need to give up her studies because of her family’s expectation that she get married, which broke my heart.
The show’s choreography is a mixture of boxing training and dance. The sequence which impressed me most was one in which all the actors were inside the ring, miming a fight. It was the one time the play dealt with the inherent violence of boxing, and the mixed emotions of a competitor’s desire to win, but wish to not actually injure their opponent.
‘No Guts, No Heart, No Glory’ is very effective at achieving its goals. Politically, it gives a voice to young Muslim girls who are so rarely heard from in the media. You are drawn into their story and experiences. I’m going to avoid referencing an obvious ‘knockout’ cliché, but the play captures something special about combat sports as a way for people to become stronger and express their own voice.
Words by Kevin Chiat
‘No Guts, No Heart, No Glory’ ran as part of the Perth International Arts Festival.