A father, A daughter, A gulf: ‘Baghdaddy’ Review

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Image credit: Helen Murray

★★★★★

It begins and ends with a McDonald’s birthday party. The Golden Arches mirror the modern Moorish architecture behind. A father (Philip Arditti) recalls his own childhood in Iraq. Where the abundant date fruits make champion sprinters of school children. Where the sun will never burn you. 

Baghdaddy, Jasmine Naziha Jones’ semi-autobiographical debut, speaks as much to her childhood in Gulf War Britain, as her father’s in Iraq. A second-generation British Iraqi immigrant, Naziha Jones delves into her childhood memories, and her family’s lived experience of the military response to Saddam Hussain’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991. It’s one-hundred-and-twenty minutes of intergenerational trauma – and it’s satirical and scathing in equal measure. 

The writer experienced this conflict from afar, and through her father. Naziha Jones also plays Darlee, a young child possessed by trauma and embodied by three torturous playmakers (Hayat Kamille, Noof Ousellam, and Souad Faress). The ensemble are energetically sadistic. Under the powerful direction of Milli Bhatia – just try reading the play’s script – they bend between a great many guises, most one-dimensional by design. 

‘For democracy, hypocrisy, and Socrates,’ Ousellam yells as a trigger-happy US troop, gunning down a innocent civilian who cannot read his English language sign. ‘Arabic Arabic Arabic,’ is all they can proclaim. (Even here, Souad Faress is given chance to perform a character with whom the audience might connect).

Naziha Jones disarms as both writer and child protagonist. Sharp lines become explosive putty in her hands. She likens her Iraqi cash to a British fifty pence piece – we hurt when she can’t use it at the swimming pool. Her story, transformed, is a genius means of accessing the audience. By relating them to the young (oft-presumed white) child, rather than her older, immigrant father.

Her final monologue – ‘What do you think of Saddam?’ – is atomic, her critique honed not on Western military intervention, but thirteen years of sanctions. 500,000 children dead. Cancers and leukaemia from bombs lacquered in depleted uranium. The ‘detail’ of policies cooked up in the ‘Land of Opportunists’. Still, it’s neither simplistic, nor a typical left wing critique. It’s spoken word poetry, spat out on the dust of Operation Desert Storm.

Moi Tran’s design plays equally devastating attention to detail. A newsagents’, stocked with tiny customised packets of ‘Plato Sweets’ and ‘Tudor Crisps’, mocks hallmarks of Western civilisation. Other choices are simple, but painstakingly executed, the stage transformed from a pharmacy to Iraqi shop front, with the flick of some blinds.  

Other senses are bashed through bipolarity. Bang. Bang. Black Out. Run, Rabbit Run!, rooted in racism, opens the production. Jessica Hung Han Yun lights a midnight piss with the flicker of the constant television coverage; the father’s yawn breaks into a Munchian scream.

Elena Peña’s sound design throbs between being subtly haunting, then suddenly overwhelming. The voices in Darlee’s head whisper around the theatre. An angelic chorus of ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ is hummed from behind harrowing Tony Blair masks. A single note drones beneath the playwright’s monologue. Near every element is individually perfect. Collectively, they’re catastrophic.

Anchored in the 1990s, Baghdaddy also goes back in time to the father’s arrival in 1970s Britain. His mother, a clever woman, forces him to stay and avoid conscription of in the Iran-Iraq conflict. Humour, light and dark, comes here in heaps. As with all migrants, a period of adjustment follows. Sinking his teeth into a kebab, Arditti’s newfound Saudi companion warns, ‘never approach British food with optimism’. It’s Naziha Jones, again, multiroling in Middle Eastern solidarity as a mentor with shades and swagger. In fact, she’s so desperate to be part of her father’s story, but more often shaken off by her own trauma (‘Fuck off, you’re not in this bit’).

The humour bites. There’s a paracetamol dash between pharmacies, narrated by the theme tune to Grandstand. A privileged dinner party, Halal hors d’oeuvres served with sides of virtue signalling, guests boasting of their selflessness in raising money by selling stretches of their colons. A phone line to her beloved uncle in Iraq rings dead. ‘I’m sorry, the number you’ve called has had the shit bombed out of it’.

In costume and characters reminiscent of Jim Carrey’s The Mask, the production leans heavily on clowning and impressionistic performance. This avoids didactic messaging, but more, reflects the surrealism in such a serious experience. Only once does this stray into stomach-churning torture porn, when Darlee’s heart is daggered from her chest, masturbated over, then bloodily smeared on her father’s forehead.

For its focus on inheritance, Baghdaddy empathises with parents as people. All live wars through the media – and the uncaring, ignorant slowness of the newsagent cashier. By the time he gets to the 1990s, Arditti’s visceral responses turn into passive television viewing. It’s perfectly paced character progression – a black mirror on our own desensitisation to and complicity in violence against certain bodies. This play pluralises our modern history, turning our gaze from the twenty-four hour news cycle. We see how a succession of wars have ruined a country through the perspective of the British Iraqi migrant community – not the predominant, Western lens.

Baghdaddy burns with Naziha Jones’ anger. It was written, in part, in response to A History of Water in the Middle East by Sabrina Mahfouz at the Royal Court. She modestly claims to write her story alone, her dark humour perhaps a form of social coping. It’s also a letter signed to her father – ‘I forgive you for needing to be elsewhere’.

It will be read by many more. My father moved to the UK just before the outbreak of conflict in Yugoslavia. My first credit is a photograph of us both, my chubby limbs held tightly to his lap, in an article decrying the NATO bombings of the 1990s. Baghdaddy speaks to me, as no doubt many other second-generation migrant children. Forced to constantly defend themselves. To understand unspoken suffering. To navigate the privilege of being far from the front line, and to come-of-age against conflict.

This is devastating, diasporic theatre. It hits home, and it is impossible to miss.

Words by Jelena Sofronijevic


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