Sunday, 22 July 2007

Review: Baghdad Wedding

Baghdad Wedding (Soho Theatre) is the first play by the London based Iraqi scientist/academic Hassan Abdulrazzak, which ultimately gives short shrift to the American presence in his native land. This play uses several styles (first person and third person perspectives, and flashbacks amongst them), which mainly work because of artistic director Lisa Goldman’s well executed production on a functional multi level set. The play centres on Salim and the circumstances around the wedding of the title. It is a tale of moral hypocrisy, sexuality (particularly the differences between Iraq and London), the brutalities of war, the cyclical nature of occupation and insurgency, and good old fashioned love (which can feel a tad bolted on).

Matt Rawle plays Salim, a charming but arrogant bisexual Iraqi studying medicine in London and living it up with the Arab intelligentsia and other privileged young Iraqi’s. Marwan (Nitzan Sharron) is his rather straight laced best friend, an engineering student and fellow Iraqi; he becomes our narrator for much of the play, though the story never quite becomes his own (belonging to his more glamorous friend). Alternating between their student days in 1998 and post-invasion Baghdad in 2004-05, we see the events of the late 1990’s as a background to the more important and complicated events of 2004-05. Sometime before the war Salim has had published a controversial novel featuring copious gay sex, which naturally makes him a somewhat controversial figure back in Baghdad. He returns to the city in 2004, ostensibly to get married (but also show his faith in the US/UK invasion, which he had approved of from a distance). His wedding party is mistakenly attacked by a US helicopter and he is presumed dead, along with his unseen bride. Actually Salim survives and is captured by an insurgent group in the hope of a future ransom form his wealthy family. In turn these insurgents are attacked by US forces who capture and brutally interrogate Salim as a possible terrorist. He endures far worse treatment at the hands of his American captors than his Iraqi ones, although the latter were considerably more likely to eventually kill him if they didn’t get their way (despite letting him read the Koran). The Americans are portrayed as ignorant brutal bullies, their authority simply stemming from the fact that they are there and they have the biggest weapons, certainly not in pursuit of a just cause or the betterment of Iraq. After his eventual release, Salim graphically describes the sexual torture that he would like to visit upon his American interrogator. I’m sure this is supposed to show Salim as a man cracked by terrible circumstances, but it was still horrifying for him to have conceived of it.

His initial support for the war (with some caveats), turns into furious opposition when he is personally affected by torture and the death of many of his friends and family. I didn’t see this as some great moral awakening from supporting invasion to opposing what he now saw as occupation, but the natural reaction to murder and degrading treatment (I didn’t think his previous position was immoral or wrong in the first place). Earlier in the play he had dismissed the abuses at Abu Ghraib as nothing compared to what was going on there before the Americans took it over. The fact is that if Salim had been held in one of Saddam’s prisons, his prognosis would have been far grimmer than with the Americans. This is moral relativism, I know, but it is also true. It does not excuse any abuse or torture ever, but it is the kind of reasoning that the vast majority of people use in their everyday lives but in a drastically more banal way (or indeed a real way that people can judge the changes between regimes in places like Iraq; ‘will I get shot on the street corner?’, ‘will the interrogator kill me?’, a beating for an innocent man or woman would be better that murder, but still nowhere near right)

The representation of the insurgents is also very interesting. They are killers, but always with some kind of personal justification, an often emotional call to violence that conversely immunises their emotions when it comes to other people’s lives, the great cause worth fighting, dying, or killing for. Salim is nothing to them; they hold him simply for his financial value. He asks one of them if he can see that waging war against the Americans might make them stay longer, the man can’t see merit in this argument (the innocent who are killed will go to paradise and the guilty will be despatched to hell is his general message). I can see that these men aren’t fighting for their country or co-religionists either, they are fighting for their particular sectarian vision of Iraq, they will kill Americans and then fellow Iraqis to get their way. It really is an intractable situation, a situation that strangles the hopes of Salim and those who thought a post Saddam Iraqi could work.

Some of the acting can veer towards the ‘over demonstrative Arab’ school, but most of the performances are very good, particularly Rawle, Sharron, and Shirine Saba as Luma a fellow ex-pat student friend of the two men, who becomes an heroically struggling doctor in Baghdad, and loved is by both of them (she marries Slalim eventually, which makes me feel very sorry for the faithful Marwan).

The events in Baghdad Wedding do stretch the limits of credulity at times, but who can say what can and can’t happen in the crazy mess that is modern Iraq? This is however a very interesting play, not perfectly written, which raises myriad issues, and has some great performances.

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