Soho Theatre + Writers' Centre, London W1
Opened 3 July
, 2007

England's new no-smoking regulations provide an exemption "Where the artistic integrity of a performance makes it appropriate". It is not crucial to the plot here that one character smokes cigarettes and another spliffs, but surely the author's inclusion of such acts is the primary indicator of artistic integrity. Full marks, then, to director Lisa Goldman for not letting red tape interfere with her theatrical enterprise and daring to dissipate about one cig's worth of smoke in an hour and three-quarters. Rather fewer marks, though, for her choice of play. Hassan Abdulrazzak's playwriting debut excites mild curiosity more often than dramatic compulsion.

In examining the effect of the Iraqi war on "ordinary people", Abdulrazzak does not condescendingly depict struggling farmers or urban proles, but rather the middle classes. We are shown the three central characters in the late 1990s at Imperial College, London, and joking that all Iraqis there are studying either medicine or engineering. (Abdulrazzak himself is a molecular biologist there.) Jump forward to 2004 back in Baghdad, and one of them, Salim (Matt Rawle), is about to get married, until a U.S. helicopter's rocket hits the wedding convoy. So far, so-so; it is intriguing but little more to see the perspective of such characters on Saddam, sanctions, invasion, Islamism etc.

My interest began to be aroused in earnest by Salim's account of his experiences following the rocket attack. It seems as if this westernised author of a controversial gay novel may be about to become, not radicalised exactly, but awakened to the religious and political complexities of the situation. Unfortunately, this possibility rapidly subsides into an account of his suffering at the hands of the American military. Whatever one's views of the atrocities perpetrated there, the brutal fact is that it now takes something special to hold our attention as a theatre audience, and this is nothing special. Goldman's production is as efficient and detailed as ever, although it is a bad decision to have the cast affect even mild Iraqi accents. In the end, though, the play falls victim to audience war fatigue: in either news coverage or artistic renderings, it takes something more egregious than this to engage our hearts and minds. We shouldn't feel like this, but we do.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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