nytheatre.com review by Daniel Kelley
May 22, 2008
Artefacts is a tightly written 80-minute drama exploring the relationship between East and West as seen through the eyes of a family that's fallen apart, on the verge of coming together. It's the story of Kelly, a typical privileged London teenager—the only child of a single mother who thinks about nothing but clothes and boys and hanging out with her friends. That is, until one day when she finds out that the father she has never known is in town. More than that, he's Iraqi and the head of the National Museum of Iraq. When they meet, Kelly's father, Ibrahim, presents her with an ancient Mesopotamian pot—older than Iraq itself—as a symbol of their father-daughter bond. When he has to leave shortly thereafter, Kelly threatens to smash the pot unless he stays. When he cannot, she smashes the pot. This hugely symbolic and highly personal act sets in motion the rest of the action, which brings Kelly to Iraq to face the reality of life there, and of her heritage.
Playwright Mike Bartlett sets up a very careful balancing act with Artefacts. On the one hand, this is a deeply personal five-character family drama; on the other hand, it is a highly intellectual and political exploration of the cultural divide between the English and the Iraqis. Through most the play, this balance is sustained with masterful control. The characters speak in a heightened language of ideas that goes beyond their personal circumstances, a theatrical device that should be commended, as it speaks to the playwright's faith in humanity in the face of terror and unspeakable human atrocities. Bartlett is able to balance the personal and the political in this regard to such a degree that the characters feel mostly believable and realistic.
However, in the final two scenes of the play, the balance tips. In the second-to-last scene, between Kelly and her mother, Susan, the politics seem to disappear and the personal takes over, which feels jarring. In the final scene, between Kelly and her Iraqi sister, Raya, it tips towards the purely political, which also feels jarring. The result is an unsatisfying feeling at the end of the play, which is unfortunate, as the rest of the play is so meticulously constructed and powerful.
The performances in Artefacts are a model of strong ensemble acting. The actors are in complete control of the space around them, the rhythm of the play, and the inner lives of their characters. Lizzy Watts as Kelly is appropriately crass and obnoxious, but never judges the character—she believes everything she is saying, no matter how non-PC or culturally insensitive it might be. Peter Polycarpou gives a riveting performance as Ibrahim, Kelly's Iraqi father. His intense attention to detail, specifically the rhythms of Ibrahim's speech, make his portrayal a fully engaged three-dimensional portrait of a reasonable man placed in unreasonable and chaotic circumstances.
Artefacts is an engrossing and highly compelling evening of theatre. It features a stellar cast, and a strong play from a playwright whose work I will be excited to see in the future. It's a gripping drama, and well worth seeing.