Mike Bartlett is a highly promising young playwright who follows last year’s tug-of-love debut play, My Child, at the Royal Court with this highly efficient, well crafted account of a teenaged English girl’s emotional confusion when she discovers that her father is an Iraqi. Only the play’s title, Artefacts, is a mistake; “Baghdad Blues” might have been better.
Kelly’s mother has kept the truth of her father’s identity confined to a correspondence. Ibrahim left Britain while she, Susan (Karen Ascoe), was pregnant with their child but is now returning on business in his role as director of the National Museum of Baghdad. Kelly at first refuses his olive branch, in the shape of a valuable Mesopotamian vase, but later tracks him to Baghdad where he lives with his wife, Faiza, and their daughter, Raya.
The vase assumes a symbolic importance in the play’s narrative which hinges on the abduction of Raya by local insurgents while Kelly is in Baghdad. Should it be sold to pay the ransom? Is the life of a loved one more significant than the past and future of the homeland? Bartlett shows a real flair for dramatising different sides of the argument, and Faiza’s dilemma as mother and subservient wife is particularly poignant.
James Grieve’s acute production for Nabokov (in association with the Bush) – which tours next month to Clwyd, Scarborough, Bath, Salisbury, Norwich, Colchester and Plymouth -- is simply staged on a large Persian carpet strewn with small patterns of rubble with the Bush audience arranged on four sides for the first time here.
Lucy Osborne’s design is just right for the conversational tone set by Lizzy Watts’s motormouth Kelly, an outstanding performance of a girl on the brink of university who goes from adolescent pique to devotional concern and finally an all too flippant British sense of detachment. Peter Polycarpou rumbles with dignity and pent-up passion as Ibrahim, while Mouna Albakry as Faiza and Amy Hamdoon as her daughter play with impressive serenity.
The play manages to express so much that seems tragic and true about Iraq while gripping us with its formal devices of monologue, parenthetical scenes made up of the stash of letters, entire exchanges in Arabic (one is the fable of the Pied Piper, later repeated in English by the hostage girl) and smart stabs of political and cultural history. There is a striking cross-cultural soundtrack, too, by Arthur Darvill and good lighting by Hartley T A Kemp.