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Review: Aftermath at the Old Vic Theatre

Published 10 July 2010

The London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT) is upon us, delivering theatre that pushes the boundaries of public space and celebrates internationally inspired art and performance.

Aftermath, a documentary drama by acclaimed writers Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, all the way from the New York Theatre Workshop, is a worthy addition to this festival. Through real-life interviews which have been chopped and tweaked (making it fall a step short of the verbatim genre) the play brings to light the stories of a cross-section of Iraqi refugees living in Jordan whose lives have been fundamentally altered by the invasion of Iraq.

The play is performed in the Old Vic Tunnels, the new designated space for arts and theatre beneath Waterloo station. Descending into this cold, dimly-lit, subterranean venue is surprising, if eerily so, as the drab brickwork and smell of damp serves to challenge the sensibilities – and the very senses – of the refined theatre-goer. Using such a space is innovative; I’m very much up for theatre playing with preconceptions and taking you out of your comfort zone. I am, however, sceptical as to whether the thunderous rattle of trains overhead would be appropriate in any production other than one where the imaginative conjuring of Baghdad’s bombings is part and parcel of the experience.

Aftermath tells six stories, based on real interviews, with people who fled Iraq as the fallout of the war became too much for them to bear. The format cleverly engages you with their tales; a translator named Shahid introduces the characters, guiding you through the narratives. Before long you realise that you, the audience, are being treated as the interviewer. The Iraqi refugees, often sceptically, look to Shahid to explain their accounts justly whilst he looks nervously to you as he grapples with translation, exposing the pitfalls of being an intermediary where the gulfs of language, culture, and understanding can be so large. This is a theme which is explored on many levels throughout Aftermath.

Having Shahid on your side lulls you into a false sense of security. He tells you jokes, like the one about the Iraqi TV repair man who posted a photo of Saddam Hussein on the screen of the box and called it fixed. The nine characters do just as much to help you relax into your seat: the hilarious big-shot dermatologist (with a penchant for Richard Gere) showing off his degree papers; the lively theatre director who playfully bickers with his artist wife; the cook whose attention is divided between you and the Iraq vs. Australia football match.

Inevitably, as you become increasingly comfortable with the characters, the stories of their personal tragedies begin to unfold. Soon you are confronted with the injustices committed both by the coalition troops and the myriad internal militias, and challenging questions about responsibility, blame, justice, human rights, and truth surface in their reflections. From the reverent imam who is tortured in Abu Ghraib to the mother who loses her husband and family in a car bomb, to the neighbour who is blackmailed to inform on a friend – each person has suffered in a way unimaginable to most of the people sat in the audience.

Aftermath does not do much to challenge the liberal view of the Iraq war but it achieves enough by helping you to engage with the humanity of the characters. This humanity shines through, particularly, in their individual eccentricities, in the pride they each invest in their backgrounds and, crucially, the sense of humour that stands out in most of them.

The play deals, perceptively, with the relationship between light and shade in such circumstances. It is no coincidence that one of the most poignant moments in the climax of the play is interrupted, disarmingly, with wide eyes, laughter and cheering: Iraq scores a goal against Australia. The story of tragedy is set on hold for the moment of jubilation.

This is an insightful production which makes important use of the documentary style to articulate its message.

Performance Dates: 8th to 17th July
Performance Times: 7.45pm
Venue: The Old Vic Tunnels, Station Approach Road, London SE1 (Google Map)
Ticket Prices: £15 / £25
Online Ticket Booking/Sales: http://www.oldvictheatre.com/whatson.php?id=66

Aftermath is a documentary theatrical event presented by LIFT and The Old Vic, in association with ArKtype/Thomas O. Kriegsmann and Amnesty International, and is written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen.