Queen Street Gym is playing host to a different kind of crowd this week, as PIAF and UK theatre-makers Common Wealth take over their ring and punching bags with the in-your-face boxing performance No Guts, No Heart, No Glory. Five young Muslim women have decided for various reasons to take up boxing, and the show explores the conflicts and glories that arise from this unorthodox choice.
Written by London-based writer Aisha Zia, developed with five 16–23 year-old Muslim women and the former UK national champion Ambreen Sadiq, No Guts, No Heart, No Glory is a powerful look at the point where culture, religion, society and sport intersect. It opens audiences up to perspectives and voices that are too often overlooked or misunderstood. It puts these voices in an unexpected context and brings us right into the ring with them.
The work, directed by Evie Manning (who was keeping a watchful eye over everything as it happened) is in situ, and without seating; as such the work is immersive, and we are allowed to move with the women, Seherish Mahmood, Freyaa Ali, Mariam Rashid, Ambreen Razia and Saira Tabasum (herself a former British University boxing champion) as they go about their routines. They begin among the crowd, which, on the day I attended, was full of local high school students as well as a number of senior citizens. As one of the performers near me spoke, a student turned to her friend and nodded excitedly, saying “This is good.” And it’s clear that the culturally diverse group of students gathered around the packed room are hooked.
We hear monologues that discuss feelings of isolation and being misunderstood; they talk about their parents’ expectations versus the realities they are choosing for themselves. They talk about discrimination, bullying, pain and anger, as well as uncertainty for the future, arranged marriages, and acceptance by their religious communities. We watch them sparring, shadowboxing, hitting punching bags, and sprinting while they tell us what’s on their minds. They dance, they laugh, they triumph over adversity.
The performers navigate the crowd like experts, ducking and weaving, but never fully breaking character or the fourth wall to ask people to move. As an audience member, we can and do get right up close to them, but most of the time we are aware enough to give way when necessary. Sometimes we can’t see the speaker, but that’s ok, we hear their words clearly and it’s not long until another nearby performer pipes in with the next monologue. They’re quite impressive in their ability to stay unruffled by such a close pack of staring eyes.
There are times when their proximity and frankness gives you chills, and their collective power is inspiring and energising. The (mostly) women who have put this work together are communicating a powerful message to young women, especially those who face racial or religious discrimination, that they can be whomever they will themselves to be, and can do whatever they set their minds and bodies to achieve. But the message also speaks to other minorities of any gender, who have felt voiceless and powerless to shape their own lives.
Maybe, just maybe, there might have been a student in that crowd who heard those messages loud and clear for the very first time in her (or his) life. This show is for them.
No Guts, No Heart, No Glory runs until Feb 28th. For more information, visit the PIAF website here.