You’ll appreciate the Royal Court’s Baghdaddy more when you learn the three suited spirits haunting eight-year-old Darlee (Jasmine Naziha Jones, the playwright) and clowning around are manifestations of her generational trauma, but only by a small amount. The abstract absurdity of Milli Bhatia’s (of seven methods fame) direction, while amusing to many in the audience, to me felt awkward and alienating, its purpose atop an otherwise emotional exploration of the Iraq war’s devastation never quite made clear.
It begins in a McDonalds after several bright flashes and loud bangs, where the aforementioned spirits stop Darlee from eating fast food she wasn’t going to eat anyway, power down her Dad (Philip Arditti) like he’s a robot, and force her to confront her fears and her trauma around the impact of the aforementioned conflict on her father. A rush for medical supplies for Darlee’s uncle is compared to a game of football and soundtracked by the BBC Grandstand theme, while Jinn (the more chaotic of the three spirits, played with commendable indulgence by Noof Ousellam) at one point delivers an interpretative dance to what appears to be an ITV News bulletin on the war.
Throughout the first act it is simply baffling as to why clowning is appropriate for such a sensitive subject matter. One of the few laughs generated by me in act one comes from Jinn, as a frail lady who owns a newsagents, asking Dad and his Saudi Arabian mate (a jarring caricature from Jones) if they are going to buy the newspaper or what, after repeating the same scene and dialogue more than once.
There’s a confusion over just exactly who the protagonist is in this story, as while it opens on Darlee’s distress, a lot of the time we’re given the backstory of Dad’s tragic loss amid the Iraq conflict. So much of it feels like a tug of war between Darlee and Dad over who gets to be the main character, a whiplash-generating back-and-forth between the serious and the exaggerative.
That has its consequences, too. When Dad is beaten up by a racist in one scene, the sharp jolt back into the dramatic from the melodramatic doesn’t quite produce a substantial shock that perhaps Jones and Bhatia were aiming for. Its most impactful scenes come when clowning is stripped out altogether: Dad’s late-night yawn which soon becomes a scream, the chilling moment when Dad tugs Darlee by the ear and sends her to bed. The comedy distracts, rather than accentuates. The big revelation, cliffhanger, or tease – however you wish to frame it – seems to be nothing more than the establishment of the fact that all the silliness could well be a trauma response, which isn’t exactly surprising.
It does, however, make for a more darker opening for the second act – more violent, gory and troubling than how it was before, not least because a lot of the clowning is stripped away now, to the extent that it almost feels like two different shows. The issue over the real protagonist is resolved, as we spent most of the time with Dad, and as a result, the writing is raw and striking – not least in the final two monologues from a now much older Darlee and Dad. Both are incredibly poetic in nature (Arditti delivers his in a captivatingly lyrical, almost spoken word style), but it’s the former which is vivid, visionary and cutting in its use of language as Darlee talks of “puckering our lips to the living nightmare”, commercially viable trauma and lays bare the debilitating effect of war sanctions on Iraqi citizens.
Jones brands herself the “Jerry Maguire of trauma” and calls for us to “show me the money”, which reads like a damning commentary on theatrical trauma mining and exploiting distress for entertainment. I can’t help but feel like it also criticises us for laughing at all the clowning of the past two and a half hours, yet that artistic decision came directly from Jones and Bhatia – it could well have manifested in a different way in this debut play. Then again, because I didn’t find most of the exaggerative acting amusing, perhaps I am exempt from the production’s final scrutiny. Like a lot of Baghdaddy, it’s hard to tell.
Baghdaddy is now playing at the Royal Court Theatre until 17 December.
Captioned performances will take place on 7 and 15 December, with relaxed and audio described performances are scheduled for 10 and 17 December respectively.
Production Images: Helen Murray.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Baghdaddy’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.