Nine Parts Of Desire

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The Independent Culture

The woman sitting in front of me suddenly gets up, peels off her red leather coat and, leaving behind this outer skin, begins vigorously daubing a neutral canvas stretched across the intimate space of the Traverse studio. "Do you know who this is?" are her first words, spoken into a phone. It is Layal, a feisty Iraqi artist specialising in painting the female nude, rumoured to have had affairs with members of Saddam's government and good, she declares, at being naked.

In her monologue Nine Parts of Desire the Iraqi-American actor and playwright Heather Raffo gets inside the hearts and minds of oppressed Iraqi women. Drawing on interviews and events of the recent past, including America's former chumminess with Saddam when he "had a green light to put the people down", she explores the moral issues not just of being a woman in such an oppressive environment, but also of the whole question of the Iraqi war and collusion with an appalling regime.

Raffo's kaleidoscopic line-up of characters isn't always as sharply defined as it might be, but the tales are so cleverly interwoven that, Scheherezade-like, she illuminates these women's circumstances - the morbid, the colourful, the intriguing. "Everywhere I go there is a war," says Hooda, who walked for peace in Vietnam and in Chile, yet couldn't join the anti-war march in Hyde Park, couldn't walk with anyone who was pro-Saddam. The Bedouin, Amal, with her unlikely ambition of finding a happy marriage, provides a smidgen of humour, the Iraqi "American" a refreshing dash of acerbity.

Umm Gheda moves us with her account of the loss of everyone she loved in the Amiriya bombing in 1991, while the homesick Sharouqh who married her cousin and moved to New Zealand was the first woman in her family to take the enormous step of cutting herself off by living outside Iraq. And it's impossible not to share the outrage felt by the angry Doctor coping with the genetic damage and terrible cancers caused by the legacy of depleted uranium: "They say radiation in plants now is at 84 times the safety limit. But who can clean it?"

The canvas behind Raffo remains obstinately neutral, the visual recreation confined to our mind's eye as she takes us through the dark dilemmas that these women face, most chillingly under rulers whose regimes make imprisonment seem nothing compared with the cruel tortures devised to create maximum anguish.

It's not comfortable listening, but it's enormously compelling, devised with conviction and acted with commitment. And in case you're wondering about the title, "God created sexual desire in 10 parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one to men," according to Ali ibn Abu Taleb.

To 23 August at the Traverse Theatre (0131-228 1404); then at the Bush Theatre, London W12 (020-7610 4224) from 10 September