Kebab

Gianina Carbunariu, translated by Philip Osment
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs
(2007)

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The Royal Court has managed to programme Romanian playwrights in both theatres at the moment. Their triumphant revival of Ionesco's Rhinoceros is now joined by a tough contemporary drama exploring the very topical subject of Eastern European emigration to the West.

At the moment, it seems as if not a day passes by without a news story relating to the damage that our society is suffering as a result of the flood of immigrants from the newly Europeanised countries that used to be on the far side of the Iron Curtain. The impression that we are given is that these frequently hard-working, underpaid visitors are trying to take our jobs, our homes and quite possibly our lives. It is surely only a matter of time before some violent backlash builds an impetus to "send them back where they came from".

If Gianina Carbunariu's vision is anything to go by, they might be better off staying at home, even if that home is the far from comfortable Romania, only relatively recently released from the tyranny of the Ceausescus.

Orla O'Loughlin's staging is kept simple on the set that Simon Daw has designed with four different spaces spread around the small black box. Kebab starts with a great deal of hope as sparky Madalina (Matti Houghton) and serious Bogdan (Sam Crane) meet on a flight from Bucharest to Dublin. Each is looking for a new life: Maddy, as she wishes to be known, joining her boyfriend who has promised to sort her out with a job and Bogdan about to start an MA course in Visual Arts.

Once they get there, Dublin proves to be full of surprises, or, more accurately, shocks. After a brief period slaving in a kebab restaurant, her muscular boyfriend Laurence Spellman's Voicu tells Maddy that he has a much better job for her. In no time, the pretty youngster is selling her body and risking her life.

Hope arrives in the shape of timid Bogdan, a prospective customer who is soon roped into a new project that could make the Romanian trio rich. With his video skills and Voicu's business acumen, they are able to turn Maddy into an Internet porn star. Even this degradation is nowhere near rock bottom as the two men both fall in love with and violently exploit a girl who was willing to do anything for them, soon getting beaten on a daily basis to please the punters. The line between legitimate moviemaking and pornographic exploitation disappears completely allowing the play to ask searching questions about cost of living in an increasingly voyeuristic society where the borders between reality TV and live snuff movies are not all that great.

This scenario may start off sounding like an updated reworking of Jules et Jim but is very much darker and while the youngsters have fun in their ménage à trois, a happy ending is never even a remote possibility. By the end, it is a toss-up as to which of the men is worse. Voicu gives complete commitment accompanied by chilling violence, while Bogdan hates involvement and is happy to exploit from behind the camera. When put together, they are as evil pairing as one could hope never to meet.

In this play, there is not so much a twist in the tail as a series of late flowering kicks in the stomach that leave viewers shaken. Sadly, this slice of life appears all too believable and one can only hope that not too many young girls from the East suffer a similar fate to Madalina.

The Royal Court has long had a reputation for uncompromising dramas from both within and outside the UK and Kebab has all the hallmarks of another very worthwhile if not always comfortable piece of new writing. This powerful, unforgettable piece is distinguished by excellent performances from all three actors. In particular, Matti Houghton gives a very courageous performance, yet again proving that she is one of the brightest young actors around.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher