At the start of Artefacts, a new play by Mike Bartlett, the 16-year-old Kelly is confronted for the first time by the father who did a bunk before her birth. It turns out that he's Iraqi, a fact that her mum chose not to reveal. Father-daughter relations are strained when, in his capacity as curator of Iraq's National Museum, Ibrahim makes a flying visit to London. Her filial yearning masked by accusing cockiness in Lizzy Watts' excellent performance, Kelly is stung by the hurtful brevity of the father's visit. In an ambiguous gesture, he tries to leave in her safekeeping a priceless Mesopotamian vase, a symbol of the cultural heritage that is now being plundered. "If you have this, you have me," he declares. That idea is cold comfort, though, for an adolescent who wants to get to know her father in person rather than by proxy. She issues a threat: either he must delay his return or she will smash the vase.
With Artefacts – premiered at the Bush in James Grieve's quietly potent production – the playwright attempts to address broader questions of cultural identity and the painful clash of political and personal priorities. Like Hassan Abdulrazzak's Baghdad Wedding, it tries to take us into the realities of contemporary Iraq. Indeed, the play's most eloquent speech, delivered by Ibrahim (a powerfully brooding presence in Peter Polycarpou's first-rate performance), exposes the notion that the country is returning to normality as the self-serving propaganda of the withdrawing invaders.
But instead of fashioning drama that you feel on your pulses, Bartlett has created an oddly schematic construct that feels over-deliberate and regularly strains credulity.
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