Every now and then, a piece of new writing comes along that is so refreshing, compelling and original that you have to sit up and take notice. Fusing the deeply personal and the highly political, Jasmine Naziha Jones‘ debut play, Baghdaddy, is such an arresting, moving and unsettling work.
It is the story of Darlee, a second generation British/Iraqi, and her efforts to reconcile the experience of her 8 year-old self watching the Gulf War on the TV news from the safety of her living room in the UK to the realisation as an adult of the horror her father would have endured, sitting next to her watching the same thing. Although something of a modern-day bildungsroman , this is not a conventional telling of her coming-of-age story.
Director Milli Bhatia deploys a barrage of ever-changing heightened theatrical techniques: lights buzz and flicker, sonorous audio booms shake the theatre, blinding flashes and pitch dark blackouts are amongst the sensory assault techniques used to discombobulate the audience. With the core set consisting of many stairs with open-arch doorways on several levels, the surrealism of M.C. Escher is immediately evoked. Scenes switch between clowning, absurdism, dancing, cartoonish moments, monologues and poetry forcing the audience into a chaotic, anarchic journey of discovery parallel to that of Darlee.
Accompanying Darlee’s exploration of her memories are the Qareens, three spirit creatures from another dimension. Featured in Middle Eastern mythology, these entities act as a chorus to their individual, sometimes benevolently, sometimes terrifyingly. These three spirits conjure and manipulate Darlee’s childhood memories so she must readdress her perspective on her father and indeed her culture.
The playwright Naziha Jones takes the semi-autobiographical role of Darlee, imbuing the words with the authenticity and disarming honesty of an Iraqi voice. She deftly inhabits the younger Darlee with a mix of innocence (she imagines Iraq’s night sky being full of fireworks going pop pop pop) and the growing realisation of her world (trying to understand her Dad’s phone call to an Iraqi friend in London after watching Operation Dessert Storm on the news, the Young Qareen observes that Darlee understands the “fear slipping through the receiver, oozing out of Dad’s eyeballs” even if she doesn’t understand the language he’s speaking).
In the darker second half, as the older Darlee, struggling with commodifying the pain of her heritage, breaks out of a university interview for a powerful excoriating monologue addressing the repeated casual questioning of whether her family are “safe” and what she thinks of Saddam. Her extended polemic against the “bureaucratisation of evil”, where 13-years of UN sanctions eliminated science education in Iraq beyond secondary school level, blocked chemicals to treat water and sewage as were vaccines to treat children, is a powerful reminder that this isn’t something that has gone away. The actor’s searing passion delineating her raw trauma brought many of the audience understandably to tears.
Phillip Arditti gives a carefully nuanced performance as Darlee’s father. There is a beautiful warm rapport between the caring father and young daughter as they snack in McDonalds, the giant Golden Arches ironically looming above them. His desire to protect her from the horrors of the news becomes a growing lack of communication (and understanding) between the two. His attempt to create medical aid parcels is reduced to a cruelly madcap dash between pharmacies to get the maximum amount of paracetamol tablets complete with a manic Grandstand theme and horse racing commentary. Mixing the hilarious and the harrowing, it emphasises the ludicrous lengths this ordinary man is having to go to help his family in his homeland. In one of Baghdaddy‘s most visually striking and haunting moments, it’s late night and he is struggling to stay awake to watch the unfolding situation on the news. Reflected in the flickering light of the television, his yawn becomes a terrifying silent scream.
While the three Qareen characters are suitably otherworldly disruptors, it is Noof Ousellam‘s dexterous, full-throttle performance as Jinn that stands out. Described by the author as “horny for trauma”, the actor brings a wild, untethered, manic energy to the character. Switching unpredictably between charmingly playful and the downright sadistic, it is an undeniably charismatic depiction.
Baghdaddy has an unpredictable energy. It is a salmagundi of thoughts and ideas, styles and genres. There is nothing that Milli Bhatia will not use to shake us from our complacency. It is not a comfortable night at the theatre nor should it be. Strangely entertaining for such a dark subject, it feels Brechtian in places catching us laughing before exposing our own complicity. Some of the lighting flickers, electric glitching sound and the transcendental presence of the Qareens could be straight out of David Lynch’s imagination. You are left awaiting the next surprise – literally in the case of the inclusion of Cilla Black’s Surprise Surprise theme tune in the soundtrack. Brecht, Lynch, Cilla Black – that’s how broad the scope of this play is.
Jasmine Naziha Jones’s debut work refuses to restrained by boundaries. It is a stunning, provocative clarion call that demands we re-examine how desensitised and disinterested the West has become to the far reaching impact of the war on Iraq. This play demonstrates our need for new and vital voices, like Naziha Jones’, in our theatre life.
Simply put, essential theatre – ★★★★★ (5 stars)