nabokov and the Bush Theatre
Ustinov Studio, Bath Theatre Royal, and touring
Mike Bartlett's second play, Artefacts, achieves that most elusive of literary challenges: to humanise a vast political conundrum. In this case, a single parent family and an encounter with the absentee father after sixteen years, a common enough story in modern day Britain. But here the family are Londoners, the father Iraqi: in this way, Bartlett is able to spotlight the cultural gulf between Britain and Iraq and also to discredit the claims of western governments that Iraq is recovering, rejuvenating and ready to go it alone.
At the heart of the story is a father-daughter relationship in its tempestuous infancy after a sixteen year absence, which Bartlett explores beautifully. But when Londoner Kelly (Lizzy Watts) meets her Iraqi father Ibrahim (Peter Polycarpou) for the first time, their shared lack of empathy both represents and lays bare the open wound of Western involvement in Iraq.
This all too familiar domestic set up at the start of the play means that Bartlett's audience feels secure in its interpretation of who is villain and who is victim. The father left his partner and abandoned his daughter, returning for the briefest of visits after sixteen years. We think we know who is in the wrong here.
By the end we are challenged to consider the possibility that we have judged this man before hearing his story; that our dismissal of his actions were blinkered. Moreover, the reasons for our mistake might lie at the heart of the problem of Western involvement in Iraq: we see only a black and white issue when in fact a degree of cultural empathy would reveal many shades of grey.
This is an astounding cast. Lizzy Watts is a captivating and hugely impressive Kelly, emotionally damaged, gutsy, and impulsive. Karen Ascoe gives rock steady support as Kelly's troubled mother, Susan. Peter Polycarpou gives a commanding and authoritative performance, lending Ibrahim a quiet courage and dignity. Mouna Albakry, as Ibrahim's Arabic speaking wife, Faiza, gives a heart-breaking performance. Without a word of English nor any attempt at translation, her agony at the loss of her child is intense and palpable; her suffering and her humanity are universal and transcend the language barrier. Amy Hamdoon's Raya is at once a helpless 13 year old, and a grounded, courageous young woman, fighting for her country in a telling scene with her half-sister, Kelly.
Some have disapproved of Bartlett's over-simplification of the complex political and cultural issues here, in order to squeeze this debate into 75 minutes. Others consider some of the plot turns to be implausible, such as the apparent ease with which Ibrahim smuggles out a priceless and ancient artefact.
These are details I'm happy to overlook. Artefacts is arresting theatre, achieving precisely what nabokov set out to achieve with their "backlash" political theatre: it's engaging, challenging, uncomfortable, provocative, antagonistic. Twenty-four hours on, you'll still be grappling with this play, and more importantly, with your own response to the moral and political issues it addresses.
"Artefacts" tours to Scarborough, Norwich, Colchester and Plymouth.
Philip Fsher reviewed this production at the Bush
Reviewer: Allison Vale