Persecution of the Iraq Jews
“They will do the right thing.”
“The British did not build an empire by doing the right thing.”
From The Mother of Kamal
In Baghdad in 1948, Um Kamal’s two sons are arrested by Iraq’s hated and feared secret police. In prison awaiting torture, one of the young men, seeing that the other cannot cope with incarceration and terror, falsely confesses to being a communist, to secure his brother’s release. Years later the two brothers and their mother must come to terms with their shared history.
The Mother of Kamal is an intensely human drama about a family under intolerable pressure. But it’s also a fiercely political play about the tangled and terrible politics of the Middle East, and what Europe has done there in the past eighty years or so, and about the way in which racism and sectarianism have poisoned the region.
Dina Ibrahim is a writer with a political agenda, but she is a playwright first. She knows that what makes a play is a story that convinces and grips, and characters you can believe in and care about. Story and character come first, and politics a very distant second.
And what she has given us is a tremendously effective play. Along the way it has a lot to tell us about how European politics permeated and poisoned those of the Middle East.
Ibrahim is not just the writer. She is a trained and accomplished actor, and she takes on the main part of Um Kamal herself. The play’s effectiveness relies on her performance, and she is on stage all the time. She is doing chores in her kitchen while the audience comes in at the start, and she returns there before it returns from the interval. She makes the play work.
That kitchen is a kind of apron, occupying only a small part of the stage. The play premiered at the much smaller Hen and Chickens pub theatre, and director Stephen Freeman has made intelligent use of the generous extra performance space at Upstairs at the Gatehouse. The kitchen is raised sand cluttered, leaving bare space all round to serve for all the other locations, including the prison.
Apart from Ibrahim, the greatest acting burden falls on Manav Chaudhuri, who plays no fewer than eight parts. These include a wonderfully bureaucratic letter writer who will, for a fee, write a letter in the correct form pleading for the release of a family member. It’s much to Chaudhuri’s credit that I was never confused about whom he was playing.
This is an exciting and informative evening in the theatre. It isn’t perfect. Motivations sometimes seemed obscure, for example when the brothers started fighting each other at the end. Tension slackened after the second brother was released from prison. I was not sure that the occasional stylised movements added anything much.
But the show grips and instructs at the same time, and that’s a rare and precious thing in the theatre these days. It’s a well crafted, well acted, thoughtful and serious play.
The Mother of Kamal
Written by Dina Ibrahim
Directed by Stephen Freeman
Director: Stephen FreemanS
Costume Designer: Alice McNicholas
Composer: Jon Kudlick
Lighting Designer: George Petty
Sound Designer: Aidan Good
Running Time: Two hours with an interval
Booking to 28th January 2024
Upstairs at the Gatehouse
London N6 4BD
Box Office: 020 8340 3488
Reviewed by Francis Beckett
at Upstairs at the Gatehouse
on 20th January 2024