The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes

Rashid Razaq (based on a short story by Hassan Blasim)
Nabil Elouahabi & Nick of Time Productions Ltd
Arcola Theatre

Selva Rasalingam as Kevin and Nabil Elouahabi as Carlos Fuentes Credit: Judy Goldhill
Caroline Langrishe as Lydia King and Nabile Louahjabi as Carlos Fuentes Credit: Judy Goldhill
Nabile Louahjabi as Carlos Fuentes and Caroline Langrishe as Lydia King Credit: Judy Goldhill
Selva Rasalingam as Khaled, Nabile Louahjabi as Carlos Fuentes, Selva and Sara Bahadori as Sahar Husain Credit: Judy Goldhill

“How can you be an Iraqi? There is no Iraq. There is nothing here but death.”

So says clear-up cleaner Khaled as he sorts body parts into yellow plastic sacks and other bomb blast refuse into blue ones. It is a scene in Guardian journalist Razaq’s new play that is based on a story by the first Arab writer to win the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes presents in microcosm the results of sectarian conflict in Iraq post-Saddam’s fall and the growing prominence of ISIS in the Middle East makes it now especially relevant. It tells the story of one particular refugee in Britain, the Sunni Salim, now calling himself Carlos Fuentes, having seen the novelist’s name while searching for one that might fit his looks but not sound Arabic.

Salim was married to a Shia woman but fled the country to protect her and his child from the violence of Shia disapproval. It is a moving and disturbing story but the play starts off as comedy with Carlos handcuffed to the bedhead in a luxurious hotel room. He is helping a wealthy British businesswoman play out her sexual fantasies and cultural differences and linguistic misunderstandings make it very funny.

A succession of short scenes hop around in time between March 2006 and May 2011 to fill in back-story and take it forward. Chronology is identified by projected dates and newsreel clips of political pronouncements from Bush, Blair, Brown, Cameron, Clegg and Obama that make their own statement about responsibilities.

From the comic horror of the British citizenship test, with a Home Office employee trying to be helpful, to the genuine horror of deportment when tragedy and delusion have destroyed Salim’s British marriage and his sanity, a surreal imagination here blends with stark reality.

Nicholas Kent’s clear-cut production seamlessly unites theatrical and factual, keeping his audience engrossed. It is about situation rather than character, but Nabil Elouahabi and Caroline Langrishe portray Salim/Carlos and Lydia King with presence and feeling. We learn little about them but they make a relationship and second marriage that begins with a blatant pick-up seem believable.

In support are Selva Rasalingam, who doubles Kaled and dodgy G4 employee Kevin, Salim’s last humiliation, and Sara Bahadori, who plays the Home Office clerk and Sahar, Salim’s tragic first wife.

Tightly written and compactly mounted on Ellan Parry’s sliding-panelled set on Studio One’s thrust stage, The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes plays for nearly 90 minutes, engrossing without an interval as it proceeds from gentle farce to mental anguish, often presenting both at once.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton