Thursday, February 28, 2008

Blood Ties And Broken Vases

Monday night saw me bussing it over to the Bush. Having been granted a recent reprieve by the arts council the small theatre’s stairwells are now peppered, graffiti style, with congratulatory comments from theatre folk. For their current production, Mike Bartlett’s Artefacts, the seating in the, already compact, venue has been arranged in-the-round (or in-the-square, as the Whingers like to pedantically point out), the stage covered with a faded Persian carpet in need of a damn good hoover.

Now I managed to somehow miss Bartlett’s previous play My Child, so I was coming to this empty of expectation. Artefacts is about Kelly, a sixteen year old girl who has never met her father. Her mother had told her that she had no idea of his whereabouts, but this wasn’t strictly true. All these years he has been in Iraq; he is, in fact, Iraqi. Kelly is, understandably, both curious and angry to discover that her absent dad has been living all these years in Baghdad and, on discovering he is visiting the UK, reluctantly agrees to meet him. During their first awkward encounter he presents Kelly with an ancient, priceless vase. (I suppose it is meant to act as a link to him, to his homeland and to the past. It also important later in the plot, you know, a symbol of stuff and things). Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kelly is unimpressed with this gift. She simply wants a father who is a presence in her life, someone to take care of her, to love her, to act like a dad is supposed to.

Bartlett can certainly write. Kelly’s early monologues are both fluid and true, tripping and skipping along, peppered with references to shopping and Charlotte Church’s thighs. He also has some interesting things to say about objects and memory, the way our possessions connect us to our past, the significance of the things we surround ourselves with. But too often the plot feels as if it has been pieced together solely as a backdrop for Big Themes. The characters are very thinly sketched. Kelly excepted they are there to act as conduits for various different points of view, to allow Bartlett to make his points about international involvement in Iraq; they don’t hold together as people.

But, though at times the dramatic scaffolding was all too visible, some of his points did resonate. There’s a line near the end of the play where Kelly and her Iraqi half-sister Raya, discuss the necessity of having something, some cause, someone, that you would die for, both slightly scornful of the other’s attitude. Now my family are Serbian, not Iraqi, but the current situation in Kosovo has made me think about what that means more sharply then usual. Certainly I find the passion and rage it invokes in usually level-headed people quite extraordinary. I rather self-righteously pride myself on remaining balanced and rational in my thinking, trying to see all sides, but sometimes I wonder whether, by not feeling that fire, that primal connection to a place, to a people, I am somehow lacking.

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