Mike Bartlett's new play Artefacts is clever in the best possible way: it turns shallow thoughts into deep observations about character, and pulls apt cultural metaphors out of those depths. By grounding itself in a family drama—a spoiled British girl learns she is half-Iraqi—it avoids the pitfalls of political drama and speaks personally rather than preachingly.
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio
“Show, don’t tell,” goes the old saying about the best writing. It’s a maxim that's important for playwrights, and even more important for political dramas, which too often come across as unimaginative sermons. It’s a pleasure to find that in his excellent play, Artefacts, Mike Bartlett has found a way both to prove and break that rule. The stream-of-consciousness of a typical, selfish teenage girl (Kelly), allows him to tell quite a bit, but what she chooses to tell—what she focuses on—shows us quite a bit about ourselves.
“I just wanted one of those Saturdays, one of those good rainy Saturday afternoons when you lie back, watch a film, call your mates, text a boy, yeah?” It’s an earnest question, one that she delivers directly to the surrounding audience as she paces the carpeted center of the stage. Instead, she finds herself preparing to see Ibrahim, her father, who she has never met, and who—get this—is from Iraq: “So I’m half Iraqi. Shit man.” Slickly directed by James Grieve, her lengthy asides continue through the dialogue, giving us an idea not just of her attention span but of what goes through a young girl’s mind: “Mum asked, do I want to get him a present or something? Do I? No. Like what? He’s come from Iraq. I could probably give him a Mars bar and he’d be amazed. But no. Yeah. Maybe I should.” In this context, especially as performed by the exceptional Lizzy Watts, this telling reinforces the drama: it also, subtly, shows us Kelly’s racist perception of Iraq.
It’s a perception that doesn’t hold up, especially in Peter Polycarpou’s delicate portrayal of Ibrahim—not a heartless monster, but a man torn to pieces by ethics and a problematic lack of class. (He undermines his gift to Kelly, a priceless Mesopotamian pot, when he says he is “killing two birds with one stone”—he is also protecting it from those politicians who would “protect it” by keeping it themselves.) The same goes for Mouna Albakry, who as Ibrahim’s Iraqi wife, Faiza, does not speak a word of English in the play. It's a bold but wise choice, necessary to keep us grounded in Kelly's world, but it's Albakry expressive nature that pulls it off.
Bartlett’s writing is clever in the best possible way, for it turns shallow thoughts into deeper observations about character and pulls apt cultural metaphors out of those depths. For instance, when Kelly is drawn to Iraq by artifacts of her own (years of letters from Ibrahim that her mother had refused to deliver), she nervously confesses to Faiza that she tried to learn Arabic off her iPod, but usually just listened to Kanye West. Her observations about Iraq are telling, too: “I’m looking out the window and it’s weird, cos I’ve got armour and security and I’m travelling through these streets like I’m going to be shot any moment but outside there’s people talking and mums with pushchairs, and people shopping and stuff. You know. There’s traffic jams and traffic lights. It’s amazing. It’s normal.”
This obliviousness is thrust back in her face as she learns that her half-sister, Raya, has been abducted—a thing that is so “normal” in Iraq that the police recommend Ibrahim pay—and that Ibrahim, the ethicist, is questioning the morality of payment ("If ten families in a row do not pay, they will stop"). Some preaching follows—“Maybe all Iraqis are stupid”—but from the perspective of an abandoned daughter, not an ignorant Brit: “As I grew up, when bad things happened I used to hide under the blankets and I’d ask God for my dad to turn up that night and protect me.” (Comparatively, these weren’t even bad things.)
By the end of the play, things come full circle. Three years later, we can see how much has changed—or not—as Kelly leaves her Iraqi past behind: “I’ll go through these glass doors and a woman will offer to help me and I’ll be shopping and I’ll be feeling great. I will feel so fucking normal. Shopping and eating and coffee and out and home. It’ll be bright and it’ll be happy and it’ll be easy. And I won’t need to worry. Just me. Just as I wanted it. Just as it should be.” How’s that for a political slap in the face?
Artefacts (80 min.)
nabokov @ 59E59: Theater B (59 East 59th Street)
Tickets (212-279-4200): $37.50
Performances (through 6/8): Tues. – Sat. @ 8:15 | Sat. @ 2:15 | Sun. @ 7:15
According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.