Simon Jenner in the West End
27th November 2022
“Congratulations! Your pain is commercially viable.” Jasmine Naziha Jones’ Baghdaddy premiering at the Royal Court Downstairs doesn’t so much ask as demand: How does an eight-year-old half-Iraqi child experience shock and awe?
Noof Ousellam, Jasmine Naziha Jones and Hayat Kamille. Photo credit: Helen Murray.
Especially watching her father’s reactions to their country being blown apart – and his decision to rush over with a suitcase of Paracetamol? A riot of balloons and clowning, where father and daughter are encircled by two Qareens and a Jinn, tells it like it isn’t to illustrate to us how Jones felt it as it was: starting and ending in a McDonald’s meal with her dad: cue a huge descending letter ‘M’. Dad goes into ‘elevator mode’ collapsed like a puppet. Is it his dream we experience, and Darlee’s? Not only a child’s perspective then, but in traditional magic-realist terms somehow their dreams bisect.
The Court continues its tacit season of witness with a work of more personal dramatic scope than Jonathan Freedland’s Jews. In Their Own Words and Martin Crimp’s Not One of These People. In one sense though, Baghdaddy works best when stripped back to simple scorching speeches towards the end. And it’s why of all the Court plays this season, it’s the one to see. Even if you do have to fight through balloons first.
Somewhere before the interval and short second half though, Baghdaddy, directed by Milli Bhatia, scrunches gear from high-helium to stripped-back monologues both profound and personal. Though for Jones it’s been personal all along, not least because she herself takes the central role of Darlee, an initially eight-year-old girl trying to make sense of the First Gulf War launched on 25th February 1991 and presented on the stage with enormous explosions; there’s huge bangs, smoke, strobe warnings. And there is an absence. Darlee’s British mother isn’t mentioned: it’d be a very different play.
Philip Arditti. Photo credit: Helen Murray.
Moi Tran’s set is a deceptively monolithic double-flight of stone steps to temple porticos and others left and right. Through these newspapers we see cubicles and camel-style taxis pop up as well as a descending screen of a drugstore window. Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting has the suggestive glare of a TV set facing the characters. It’s an occasion for Elena Peña’s sound, morphing from tele-news through pop through seat-shaking explosions and blackout.
Jones, an experienced actor, grounds her own debut play in two huge monologues towards the end: the other’s by Dad (Philip Arditti) who also delivers narratives from his 1980 arrival shot through with comedic and sometimes savage interludes, like being beaten up by Jinn (Noof Ousellam) in his avatar as British thug for looking at “my bird”.
Arditti moves from baffled eagerness through confused agonies to tender deposition. All along Jones’ Darlee teases and tests his qualities as father; just as he’s tested by other forces, doing his duty as brother and at one time the frantic warner of a missile-attack.
There’s catch-phrases – “a young boy who thinks himself a man” – and continual jibes delivered by Souad Faress (Elder Qareen) and Hayat Kamille (Young Qareen). There’s also sexism: Darlee is “a young filly” when helping her Dad in rushing from chemist to chemist trying to buy two packets of Paracetamol after a bumper consignment’s rejected in a comedic mistranslation of a suicide bid. Darlee though masters English with David Bellamy impressions and kerned pronunciations echoing her father’s ongoing experiences but accommodating English with at times a querulous mastery: it’s a two-edged tongue oppressing Dad and in the words of others, probing her.
The three other actors as Jinn and Qareens prod conscience and identity at both Darlee and Dad, their fears and doubts manifest. At one point, Ousellam smothers Arditti to death with a pillow.
Philip Arditti and Noof Ousellam. Photo credit: Helen Murray.
Minute and witty stage directions speak Jones’ consummate command of stage business, and a supportive audience laugh even at no jokes at all. The dramaturgy though is helter-skelter, and though chronologically signposted – 1980, 1991 and 2003 at least – there’s much fantastical detail and telling comments subsumed in the melée.
It’s clear Jones and Bhatia are often on the same directorial page – Jones’ text signals a frantic pace at times, but she’s also clear about the way dialogue lands. The set encourages a clear approach, and Adi Gortler marshals movement direction with aplomb, the frantic assemblage of props and pace blur its seriousness.
All that changes though when Jones’ tone negotiates Darlee’s adulthood, just before the interval. When at a university interview in the second act Darlee’s asked blandly: “What do you think of Saddam?” it’s the occasion for searing anger fuelling this play to explode with greater detonations than we’ve experienced.
Jones’ hammer-blows at western complicity, children dying of depleted uranium shells contaminating the country, blaze a terrific release: all the sneers and blindness, all the translation insults, neo-liberal assumptions like 13 years of sanctions killing thousands for their own good. Jones’ words blister like a hotwire slicing through the high-minded jinks of the play: we’re in a simple unadorned space where adult Darlee (and surely Jones herself) delivers a white-hot tirade against our smug, often murderous assumptions.
It’s here too that Jones brings in her Dad’s own difficulties now plainly stated, not through a sad comedic mask, ushering in Arditti’s own riveting account of the death of a relation as he phones him. Though there’s a coda, bringing us back to that descending ‘M’, and a fine epilogue delivered in a brief aside from eating, by Jones to her Dad who can’t hear it, we’re changed by both actors. It’s a different world, emerging from dream play to waking drama. Jones and Darlee banish the Jinn and Qareens. Darlee herself is a fury.