The Bride of the Gulf is Basra; the southern Iraqi city which many in this country know only as the British base of operations after the 2003 war. This play by from the US-based Thinkery and Verse aims to redress that ignorance, portraying life in Basra in the years following the British withdrawal and bringing genuine Iraqi voices to the fore. A collaboration between American playwright J M Meyer and Iraqi poet and painter Elham Al Zabaedy, the piece has also embraced considerable input from students in Iraq.
However much I might admire this thoughtful creative process, I'm here to talk about the end result. For me, Bride of the Gulf divided into two distinct halves; and in the first part, I often didn't really understand what was going on. I recognised the individual components – some shadow-play, some meta-theatrical irony, some dream-like sequences, quite a lot of exposition – but it simply didn't coalesce into a coherent whole. An interview with playwright Meyer handed out in lieu of a programme says he is aiming for "magical realism", but I got lost somewhere in the transition to that state of mind.
A few directorial decisions are outright distracting. At one point a pair of armed men string duct tape all around the performance space; I'm not sure what it's meant to represent, but all I could think about was that there was now a sticky web positioned between me and the fire exit. Another scene sees actors sitting in the audience and singing loudly, in direct competition with lines being spoken on-stage. Perhaps a clue to what's happened lies in that interview, where Meyer says that he's incorporated all the Iraqi students' suggestions. It does feel a tiny bit like it's drafted by committee, filled with voices which, like those singers in the audience, drown each other out.
The more naturalistic second part worked much better for me. It's here that I felt I truly had a glimpse of what life is like in a war-torn city; an understanding of how indescribable horror can become the everyday. The plot surrounds an ordinary, though (perhaps fatally) well-educated man, who works as a translator for the British army. Once the Brits withdraw, the translator goes missing, leaving his wife and mother to piece together his story. Has he found an escape route to Europe? Or is his fate as grim as it appears?
The most memorable scenes surround the bureaucracy of bereavement; the fact that, when death becomes so commonplace, a kind of mechanised callousness inevitably ensues. The Iraqi officials we see aren't heartless, but they're desensitised and overwhelmed – while the family's story is a simple point of reference, a constant reminder of the cruel reality of what we're witnessing. Meanwhile, there are small but telling insights into the everyday life of the people of Basra: the way they rush to charge their mobile phones when the power comes back on, or the counter-intuitive fact that the population of the city increased after the war.
I can't comment on how well the play reflects the reality of Iraqi life, but I can discuss its portrayal of assorted Brits. And I have to say, there are some off-key notes: questionable accents and curious language, and more subtle mis-steps too. The BBC, for example, has a very particular voice – so when I see a woman with a BBC microphone saying things I know they would never say, it chips away a little at my belief in what's being portrayed. And that's important, because if I don't recognise the things I know about, I wonder if I can trust the depiction of a less familiar world.
Bride of the Gulf is clearly a worthy project, and a justified challenge to the Anglo-centric narrative surrounding Basra in the West. There are some beautifully evocative moments, and a few hard facts which will linger long in the mind. But there's also too much that confused me… and surely, when you're telling someone else's story, your first duty is to tell it in a way the listener can understand.