This was the second time in a row that I’d arrived at the Arcola breathless and flustered and in need of a steadying glass of something. The Victoria line had inconsiderately ground to a halt and I was forced to bus-hop frantically across London to make it on time. (Though it’s pleasing to note that, despite considerable Christmas indolence, I can still run pretty fast if circumstances require)
Anyway, the Arcola. Their first new production of 2008 is an odd one. The British Ambassador’s Belly Dancer is written by Craig Murray, the former ambassador to Uzbekistan, together with his partner Nadira and Alan Hescott. Murray, of course, was very publicly sacked for exposing human rights abuses. During the same period, he also left his wife for an Uzbek dancer, Nadira, who worked in a gentlemen’s club he frequented.
The subsequent media blitz has already made it to the stage, as part of Robin Soans’s wobbly verbatim piece Life After Scandal at Hampstead Theatre, and, as this play notes, there was a time where the couple had “Noam Chomsky on Hotmail and David Hare in the kitchen.” But that was a while ago (and Nadira never got her promised Nicole Farhi dress).
This current play comes across as Nadira’s attempt to tackle the way she was treated in the tabloids, to speak for herself, to tell her own story. So she performs, as well as co-writes, sitting before us wreathed in her black silk dancer’s garb and a pair of clumpy desert boots. And her story is both fascinating and harrowing. Her family were plunged into poverty after Uzbekistan became independent and, as a result, her father developed a drug habit. Though trained as a teacher, Nadira ended up dancing in a strip club to keep herself and her family afloat. Later, she was twice raped by the Uzbek police. She describes all this in a calm, matter of fact fashion, peppering her account with the occasional wry comment about Murray’s fondness for spanking and her struggles to source sheep fat in Shepherds Bush so she can prepare her favourite Uzbek dishes.
She is now taking acting classes. This is a woman who knows how to survive, to keep her head above water, to make the most of every opportunity. And one can hardly blame her. But on theatre terms this is still a strange exercise and one that smacks of indulgence. Nadira’s accented delivery is sometimes hesitant and the piece is full of contradictions: she wants to be taken seriously, yet intersperses the piece with bursts of belly dancing. Her story is compelling but I wondered if a show like this was the best way to present it. I must admit I left the theatre feeling more puzzled than enlightened. I gather its bound for the Arts Theatre after its stint at the Arcola though.