Bush Theatre Spring 2008 and touring
Mike Bartlett's new play does what the best realistic drama does, addressing large themes through the filter of a believable personal story.
If it is not fully successful, that is largely a product of its brevity (under 90 minutes), which forces a kind of shorthand on the playwright that means both the big themes and the human story are only roughly sketched in.
A British teenager suddenly discovers that the absent father she never knew is Iraqi, and wants to meet her. Their encounter is inevitably unsuccessful.
A few years later she has matured and mellowed enough to try again, visiting him in Baghdad, but culture and value differences again prove greater than personal feelings.
And after another passage of time, a meeting with her Iraqi half-sister proves that the gaps remain far too wide for the best intentions to bridge.
The strength of the play, along with its attractive characterisations, lies in Bartlett's success in showing that everyone on stage is acting correctly according to the way he or she perceives reality, but that the perceptions are so different that they might as well be inhabiting separate realities.
When, at their first meeting, the father makes the gesture of offering the girl a truly valuable gift, she cannot see the value, just the inadequacy of the gesture.
When in Baghdad he is faced with a horrible moral choice, his decision, eloquently defended by him, is incomprehensible to the others.
And when the English girl must ultimately face the fact that she and her sister have no common ground, Bartlett lets her declare her disengagement with power and dignity.
My only serious criticism of the play is that I may just have made all those scenes and themes sound clearer and more fully developed than they actually are. Bartlett perforce operates through suggestion and rough outlines, leaving it for us to fill in much of the shading and details.
He has certainly written some strong acting roles, and director James Grieve has led his actors to fully-imagined characterisations.
As the English girl Lizzy Watts is onstage almost continuously, jabbering away as her character admits she is inclined to, but showing us a native intelligence and growing awareness of both the larger issues and the sensitivities of others.
Peter Polycarpou keeps the father sympathetic as a weak man trying earnestly to be strong, and Karen Ascoe as the English mother, Mouna Albakry as the Iraqi wife and Amy Hamdoon as the Iraqi daughter do much to fill in their barely-sketched characters.
Artefacts is a play that may seem slight as you watch it, but that will grow in your memory as you ponder its characters and ideas.
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Review of Artefacts - Bush Theatre 2008