Mike Bartlett's Artefacts blends political allegory with a story about an Anglo Iraqi family
“You came to Baghdad and straight away you were telling us what to do. You shouted. You didn’t listen. You didn’t know anything. And look at it now.”
Mike Bartlett is writing exciting plays about families. His debut play My Child which opened at the Royal Court showed his talent for accurately observing the terrible language of family breakup. Now he follows it up with a tale about a girl and the clash of cultures in her heritage. It starts with the girl’s story and ends with that of another girl from a different world. The whole is a political allegory.
The story is about Kelly (Lizzy Watts), an English teenage girl who meets her absentee father for the first time, having thought he was dead, and discovers that he is Iraqi and she has a half sister in Iraq. Her father, a museum director, brings a very valuable vase for her to look after which she deliberately breaks into three parts. Later he needs the vase to pay a ransom demand on his Iraqi daughter’s life but Kelly, with the best of intentions, has further damaged the valuable antique by sticking it up with superglue.
The metaphor is obvious but it works. Kelly, in her preparation to visit her father in his home country, tells us about the history of Iraq, how it was formed from three distinct regions, Mosul in the north, Baghdad in the middle and Basra in the south. When the Americans and British invade Iraq to rid the country of Saddam Hussein, they break the country up and then try to put it back together, badly as if with superglue.
As Kelly finds the exchange of letters between her parents, Susan (Karen Ascoe) and Ibrahim, the actors stand diagonally across from each other and read what her mother and father have written to each other. The scenes in Iraq between Ibrahim and his wife Faiza (Mouna Albakry) and his daughter Raya are played in Arabic. Scenes are set in the family home in Baghdad with the mother telling her daughter the story of the Pied Piper in Arabic, a story which the girl repeats to her kidnappers in English. The set is a red, richly patterned Persian carpet spoiled in places with trails of grey rubble.
The combination of Bartlett’s writing the voice of the teenage girl and Lizzy Watts’ feisty performance is electric. Kelly is candid, frank and intelligently incisive. It is through Kelly’s commentary that we learn so much about Baghdad, exploding popular myths but she also talks in exactly the way that teenage girls do, influenced by popular culture. Peter Polycarpou as Ibrahim seems weighed down by his responsibilities although he had no problem leaving Kelly’s mother when she was pregnant, after being offered a job back in Iraq.
The closing scenes see Raya (Amy Hamdoon) in England meeting her half sister and viewing the pieces of the vase which is now in the British Museum. The contrast between the two girls is obvious. Raya is serious, political, determined to stay in Iraq and critical of Western interference in her country and of her father for paying the kidnappers. Kelly manages to walk away.
Written by Mike Bartlett
Directed by James Grieve
A nabokov production
Director: James Grieve
Designer: Lucy Osborne
Lighting Designer: Hartley TA Kemp
Music: Arthur Darvell
Running Time: One hour 20 minutes without an interval
Closed at the Bush Theatre on 22nd March 2008
The Bush Theatre
Shepherd’s Bush Green
London W12 9NT
Tube: Shepherd’s Bush
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Bush Theatre on 27th February 2008