Baghdaddy at the Royal Court – review
Jasmine Naziha Jones' world premiere opens in London
Three thousand, three hundred and twenty miles away from Iraq, eight-year-old Darlee is enjoying a McDonalds dinner with her Iraqi father – there's no greater symbol of the West than that of the great Golden Arches of course.
Jasmine Naziha Jones both writes and stars in her debut play at the Royal Court. It's an exploration of the distance between a father and his daughter as well as the distance between a man and his beloved but war-torn homeland. Seeing the Iraq invasions and the horrors of the occupation through the eyes of a helpless but emotionally invested observer has all the potential to be a heart breaking and desperate piece of drama. Sadly, Jones has littered the piece with such a cacophony of different concepts that the muddying of both genre and story are too much to allow any real connection to the material.
Conjuring the memories of both father and daughter is a trio that is part Greek Chorus and part supernatural presence that manipulates the physical and exposes the psychological. Souad Faress, Hayat Kamille and Noof Ousellam paint these spirit-like apparitions with grotesque broad strokes. They are irreverent and crass and jar at every turn, particularly when genuine glimpses of poignancy trickle through – it is this vulgarity of delivery that creates such disconnection. All three are frenetic and boundlessly enjoyable performances in their own right, but coming together they are massively distracting.
Jones plays Darlee as both child and then young adult. As she observes her father she longs to understand the emotional damage that is being heaped upon him as he watches the atrocities of war on his television and as he desperately tries to get medication and help to his brother and family in Baghdad. There is, of course, just as much emotional damage being inflicted on Darlee as her father becomes ever more distracted and absent from her present. The wounds of conflict are felt far away from the frontline as well.
Philip Arditti is compelling as Dad and manages to encapsulate the pride for his homeland and the horror of how it is being torn apart. Arditti conveys his respectful disdain for the English ways of life as he first arrives in '80s London as a student "the weather is bad, the food is worse", yet does so with warmth. There is a friendly naïvety – even as he encounters a racist attack in a bar he initially only sees the extended hand of friendship.
Despite Dad holding his terrible experiences within – Darlee is absorbing the unspoken trauma at every turn. It is heart-breaking to hear the eight-year-old respond to her Dad's affectionate description of Iraq with a comment that "the sky is green with fireworks that pop at night" – her only sight of his beloved Iraq is the war footage on the television and those distinct night time bombing campaigns.
Jones works hard to portray a child that can see the fear in her Dad's eyes. A powerfully delivered final monologue sheds all the bells and whistles and speaks directly of the West as the aggressor, of its sanctions causing as much devastation as the bombs and of the virtue signalling of the well-intentioned masses. It's powerful stuff and for the first time makes you really lean forward and listen.
There are genuine moments of poignancy and gut-wrench – sadly there is so much absurdity surrounding it however that it's very difficult to grab onto.