Iraq Symbolism and Melodrama

By Simone Stevens

British playwright Mike Bartlett’s “Artefacts” is a parade of symbols and metaphors set in present day Iraq. Lining up the disintegration of one family with that of the country in general, the play meditates on the interconnectedness and startling similarities between family life and politics.

The play initially explores the relationship between Kelly, a British teenager, and her estranged Iraqi father, Ibrahim, who is the director of the Baghdad National Museum. Having left the family and England before Kelly was born, Ibrahim meets his daughter for the first time while on business in London. As a peace offering, he brings her an antique Iraqi vase, which Kelly angrily shatters into three pieces. Are we catching on? Two years later, Kelly visits Ibrahim in Iraq, with the vase haphazardly glued back together. But when his other daughter, Raya, is kidnapped by insurgents, Ibrahim enters into a moral dilemma: Should he sell the vase to pay the ransom, or refuse to give in to Roya’s captors--and terrorism by extension? An incredulous Kelly stands by as her father weighs his choices: politics on one scale, and family on the other.

Bartlett’s use of symbolism has been applauded by some and criticized by others. Notably underwhelmed, British paper The Evening Standard said that, “’Artefacts’ groans under the excess of symbolic weight attached to an ancient, priceless Iraqi vase.” On the other side, Lizzie Loveridge of the online publication Curtain Up wrote, “The metaphor is obvious but it works,” citing Kelly’s monologue on the formation of Iraq as one of the play’s key virtues. Though contemporary literature tends to snub overt symbolism, “Artefacts” sets out to make a point and does so, however clamorously.

Bartlett’s second play, “Artefacts” was featured through March at The Bush Theatre in London, before touring the UK, and closing after a brief run on Broadway.

 

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