As Marwan, the warmly engaging narrator of “Baghdad Wedding” explains, “In Iraq, a wedding is not a wedding unless shots get fired. It’s like in England where a wedding is not a wedding unless someone pukes or tries to fuck one of the bridesmaids.” You don’t expect a play about Iraq to sport good jokes. But that’s just one of the many strengths of the playwriting debut of Iraqi exile Hassan Abdulrazzak. The play succeeds not just because of its rare authenticity, but because of its engaging unexpectedness.
Abdulrazzak weaves together the personal and the political in his tale of changing allegiances among a group of Iraqi exiles, pulling off welcome surprises.
All the characters are in thrall to bisexual Salim (a suitably boisterous, preening Matt Rawle), “a literary man trapped in the body of a doctor.” He causes a considerable stir by publishing a novel. Far from being an earnest depiction of his country’s politics, it’s “Masturbating Angels,” described as ” ‘Heart of Darkness’… but a little more gay.”
On either side of him are his two friends, earnest young engineer Marwan (Nitzan Sharron) and the woman he falls for, free-spirited doctor Luma (Sirine Saba).
Structurally, the play flashes back and forth. Scenes set at different times between 2003 and 2005 in war-torn Baghdad are interwoven with those of the smart central characters filled with hope and hijinx as students in London. But just when viewers think they have a measure of the characters’ trajectories, everything changes with the thriller-like, shocking return of a pivotal character.
Released from the strictures of standard chronology, the play is free to continuously contrast various circumstances. Terrible events — attacks, kidnapping, incarceration — are juxtaposed with scenes of tenderness. And there’s real eloquence to the strongest performances, notably Saba’s hospital doctor working in appalling physical conditions at the outer limits of exhaustion. Saba is terrifically matter-of-fact, underplaying emotions to increasingly vivid effect.
She’s matched not just by Sharron’s movingly open-hearted yet troubled Marwan but also by Emilio Doorgasingh, who exudes power doubling as a kidnapping Fallujah insurgent and an American military interrogator, contrasting roles both played with arresting ease.
Although the writing encompasses sparky wit, occasional purple prose and towering rage at the “rape” of the country by American forces, Abdulrazzak wisely avoids foregone conclusions and knee-jerk responses to the war and its many combatants. As a result, the play benefits from an unusual breadth of compassion.
But not everything works. Too many subsidiary characters are there for little more than exposition, and director Lisa Goldman is stronger at handling ideas than placing her actors or shaping the arc of the play. Her earnestness — as in the bald staging of a riot — overloads the more schematic writing, with the hardworking cast looking stranded in some shapeless scenes across Jon Bausor’s neutral set.
At one point, Salim vigorously defends his rights as an author. “If I want to write about mango or dates or oil or Islam or the war or whatever then … sure … by all means but I also reserve the right not to.”
Abdulrazzak manages to do both. When most theater writing about Iraq brims with smug, agitprop certainty, it’s exciting to discover a dramatist who finds room for doubt.