Baghdaddy review – arresting and absurd take on war’s trauma

Royal Court, London
A British Iraqi and her father re-enact his wartime memories under the direction of three ghoulish clowns in a daring if uneven debut

There are searing moments in this tale of a father and daughter whose relationship is shaped – or misshaped – by the trauma of war, yet they come in an uneven debut play which uses absurdism and clowning in a flamboyant way. Its punches can hold us breathless but there are too many baggy or blunt scenes whose dark humour is neither funny nor dangerous enough.

Written by Jasmine Naziha Jones who also plays the part of the British Iraqi daughter, Darlee, opposite Philip Arditti as her father, it takes us through the Iran/Iraq war of 1980-88, the Gulf war of 1990-1 and the 2003-11 Iraq war by enacting his memories of them.

Under the direction of Milli Bhatia, we enter a hallucinatory world in which Darlee falls into the rabbit hole of her father’s past. Alongside them is a trio of otherworldly clowns – played by Noof Ousellam, Hayat Kamille and Souad Faress – who control the story. Father and daughter become their puppets in a nightmarish alternate reality where they are forced to enact harrowing memories.

The notion of exploring difficult subject matter through clowning is original yet feels contrived here. As they switch from manipulators of the action to commentators on it, these figures gurn and overact but we do not feel the horror or laughter we should.

Hayat Kamille, Philip Arditti and Jasmine Naziha Jones in Baghdaddy.
Hallucinatory world … Hayat Kamille, Philip Arditti and Jasmine Naziha Jones in Baghdaddy. Photograph: Helen Murray

The first half feels imbalanced by skit-like scenes of the father’s early years in Britain. We lose sight of Darlee for part of the play, though Arditti’s performance is superb and he quietly commands the stage. The second half is darker with surreal violence orchestrated by the clowns alongside slow-motion scenes, snaps of tinny pop songs, flashes of light, all tossed out with plenty of effect but not enough meaning.

The stage looks slightly too big for Moi Tran’s witty, spare set design although there is a fierce use of lighting (by Jessica Hung Han Yun) and sound (by Elena Peña) which fills the space with blasts, whispers, spotlights and blackness.

It ends with two potent monologues which swing away from the logic of a nightmare, speaking about war directly. While Baghdaddy’s complicated parts do not quite come together, its boldness is extraordinary and certainly showcases the playwright’s fearless talent.

• At the Royal Court, London, until 17 December.


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The week in theatre: Othello; Baghdaddy – review
Opposite Giles Terera’s dynamic yet vulnerable Othello, Rosy McEwen’s forthright Desdemona is a revelation

Kate Kellaway

04, Dec, 2022 @10:30 AM

Article image
Graceland review – anatomy of a toxic relationship
Ava Wong Davies’s monologue takes us through the small, slow steps that lead her central character into peril

Arifa Akbar

16, Feb, 2023 @12:17 PM

Article image
The Children review – Kirkwood's slow-burning drama asks profound questions
Francesca Annis, Ron Cook and Deborah Findlay give fine performances in a post-apocalyptic play that is genuinely disturbing

Michael Billington

25, Nov, 2016 @11:23 AM

Article image
The Song Project review – a mixed bag of theatrical ballads
Dutch singer Wende performs songs conceived by playwrights – on topics from bloody battles to online dating – with magnetism and a talent for storytelling

Kate Wyver

20, Aug, 2021 @11:01 PM

Article image
The Cane review – Mark Ravenhill's provocative look at power abuse
A deputy head’s historical deeds trouble his retirement in this tense drama starring Alun Armstrong, Nicola Walker and Maggie Steed

Michael Billington

13, Dec, 2018 @11:59 PM

Article image
Sound of the Underground review – magnificent explosion of mesmerising drag
A plot to kill RuPaul for dragging drag into the mainstream, followed by song and dance numbers, fires up an exhilarating show with breathtaking costumes, radical politics and filthy humour

Arifa Akbar

26, Jan, 2023 @12:05 PM

Article image
Black Superhero review – original queer drama with plenty of kapow
Part satire, part serious drama, Danny Lee Wynter’s story of gay love and acting slowly reveals its emotional powers

Arifa Akbar

22, Mar, 2023 @2:26 PM

Article image
Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp. review – Caryl Churchill's compelling quartet
The latest from the daring playwright is a fascinating four-part exploration into our appetite for blood-soaked myth

Michael Billington

25, Sep, 2019 @11:01 PM

Article image
Rare Earth Mettle review – secret deals and wordy debates
Everything here is plot as Al Smith’s play speeds over many huge issues with little time to register their impact

Kate Wyver

17, Nov, 2021 @12:15 PM

Article image
Is God Is review – revenge is a dish best served bold
Tarantinoesque bloodshed meets Greek tragedy in Aleshea Harris’s daring drama about a voyage of vengeance

Arifa Akbar

17, Sep, 2021 @1:47 PM