The horrors and absurdities of war have been the stuff of tragedy since Aeschylus – with generation after generation of storytellers illuminating the latest modes of outrages, abuses and heartache. Jasmine Naziha Jones joins this pantheon with her very personal coming-of-age drama Baghdaddy. Although a first-time playwright, Jones is an experienced performer. She shows her formidable acting chops playing not only the central character of second-generation British-Iraqi Darlee, both as an eight-year-old child and as a young woman, but also does a broad comic turn as the Saudi university sidekick, Danyal, of her Dad (Philip Arditti) in the 1980s’ flashback scenes that establish the circumstances of the family’s diasporic history.
Milli Bhatia’s direction and Moi Tran’s design bring a vivid and spectacular sensibility to the staging. Whilst sand-coloured rubble lines the lip of the stage (reminiscent of every naturalistic telling of Gulf conflict) the eye is continuously drawn to super-saturated technicolour – nodding to the cheesiest of game shows and musical hall schtick verging on panto aesthetics. There is no skimping on devotion to imagery or visual ambition in this production; the work of multi-disciplinary artist Moi Tran is compelling in its own right. However, despite its visual brilliance, with multi-rolling chorus of The Qareens: Elder (Souad Faress), Young (Hayat Kamille) and Jinn (Noof Ousellam) decked out in Boateng-bright jewel-coloured silk suits, the show is more a sketchbook than a play.
Act One nods to the same urge for commedia dell’arte as Joan Littlewood’s Oh, What a Lovely War! With added lashings of Alfred Jarry absurdism. But it also seems to borrow its tone and timing from TV sketch shows or touring children’s theatre. There are moments that inspire genuine emotional connection – be it warmth or horror; but in many cases the hope, fury and nuance are drown-out by simplistic renderings of a depressing, racist and foolish Britain. The truth of such foolishness and racism is not denied, but packaging it like a variety show of stereotypes – rather than dramatising it – diminishes the personal impact the playwright so clearly wants us to witness.
Almost as if frustrated by the chore of showing how the unceasing trauma of 31 years of war and 13 years of sanctions – both distant and immediate, televised and trivialised – would affect a father/daughter relationship, Jones switches up Act Two to pure telling. She gives herself and her father each a lengthy, spoken poetry monologue that howl with rage, beauty and purpose; but which sadly reveal an under-confidence in the fundamental dramatic construction of the work as theatre. As brilliant as Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, Jones masterfully recites her primal scream:
I can’t deny, it’s hard not to hate myself sometimes/I don’t mean that by way of apology/I’m not sorry but there’s elemental sorrow in the biology/Of second gen shame/And commercially viable pain… Gatekeepers! Hold the door for me!/Aren’t I lucky?/Yeah./I’m the Jerry Maguire of trauma./Show. Me. The money.
Sniffles were audible in the house as the two characters finally speak what their own psychic survival demanded be unsayable. This is strong and quality stuff. But, as a whole, Baghdaddy is a sketchpad rather than an opus of trauma and frustrated affection. In places, it fudges essential dramatic choices; leading to an uneven, but nonetheless interesting, production.
Review by Mary Beer
‘Congratulations! Your pain is commercially viable.’
It’s 1991 and the Gulf War rages three thousand, three hundred and twenty miles away. Darlee is 8 years old, crying behind the wheelie bookcase in Miss Stratford’s classroom. She’s just realised she’s Iraqi. Or half. Maybe both.
She saw it on the news last night after Neighbours and fish fingers. Heard the fear slipping through the receiver, saw it oozing from Dad’s eyeballs and into the living room as he tried to phone home.
What she can’t process now, she’ll be haunted by later; the spirits hounding her will make sure of that…
‘Operation Desert Storm; you won’t lose a wink of sleep over it. Except your Daddy. Your Daddy’s shitting his pants. Enjoy your Viennetta.’
Baghdaddy is a playfully devastating coming-of-age story, told through clowning and memory to explore the complexities of cultural identity, generational trauma and a father-daughter relationship amidst global conflict.
Jasmine Naziha Jones’s debut play was developed as part of an Introduction to Playwriting group at the Royal Court. Royal Court Associate Milli Bhatia (seven methods of killing kylie jenner) directs.
Baghdaddy has been generously supported by a lead gift from Charles Holloway. It is a co-production with SISTER.
Jasmine Naziha Jones
Jasmine Naziha Jones – WRITER
Milli Bhatia – DIRECTOR
Moi Tran – DESIGNER
Jessica Hung Han Yun – LIGHTING DESIGNER
Elena Peña – SOUND DESIGNER
Adi Gortler – MOVEMENT DIRECTOR
Rachel Bown-Williams & Ruth Cooper-Brown for RC-Annie – FIGHT DIRECTORS
Edda Sharpe – DIALECT & VOICE COACH
Melina Namdar – ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
Kate Watkins – STAGE MANAGER
Charlotte Padgham – DEPUTY STAGE MANAGER
Lamesha Ruddock – ASSISTANT STAGE MANAGER