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A CurtainUp London Review
Nine Parts of Desire
by Liza Zapol
The play centers on the feminine figure. This is accentuated by a somewhat crude mural on the upstage wall of a nude woman in a forest landscape. Raffo's characters are of varying body type and appearance (and relationship to the Muslim religion) indicated by the way they wear and carry the long black veil over modern dress. Only the Iraqi-American character does not wear the black garment at all. Director Eva Breneman has guided Raffo well in creating distinctly different female characters. In the personal narratives, women's bodies are objects of aggression, tools for survival, and ultimately a vessel for self-expression and creativity.
Central character Layal is a beautiful married woman, working as the curator of the Saddam Art Center. As the play progresses and the war gets closer, we discover the intricacies of her position vis-à-vis the (patriarchal) power structure. She may have been given her job because she has ongoing relations with men in Hussein's regime. She has been raped and abused. However, Layal creatively reclaims her contested body and those of the women around her, as a painter of nudes (hence, the mural, we discover, is hers). Other characters are more politically motivated.
Raffo wisely waits until over halfway through the play, when we have been compassionately drawn into her Iraq, to address the negative impact of American and Allied bombing in Iraq. We meet Umm Gheda, who shows us the Amiriya bomb shelter in Baghdad, where nine of her family members were killed in 1991, by a U.S. attack in a "special two bomb design for breaking only bomb shelter." We become aware that the colorful Arabic writing on the wall is the names of the dead. In Amanda Ford's stark and simply designed set, the wreckage and debris is left to the audience's imagination.
We also meet a Doctor who expresses outrage at the levels of cancer and genetic damage in her patients. While this section veers on the dogmatic, it is somehow refreshing to see the moral and personal outrage of these characters. Perhaps it is not perceived as threatening because it is spoken through the body of an American Iraqi, someone who bridges, and is trying to make sense of, these disparate cultures. Layal's musings on her artistry and empathy for other women is a lovely metaphor for Heather Raffo's work as a performer and writer. Layal says: "I do not ever want to expose exactly another woman's body so I paint my body but her body/ herself inside me. So it is not me alone it is all of us but I am the body that takes the experience . . . your experience, your self, I will take and only you and I will know who it is."
Editor's Note: Ben Clover first alerted Curtain Up to Nine Parts of Desire when he saw it in Edinburgh. His original review follows.
Nine Parts of Desire
Reviewers see a lot of shows in Edinburgh and it is sometimes hard not to become a little jaded. So it's with utmost conviction I can say Nine Parts of Desire is the most moving thing I have ever seen in a theatre. Words are cheap and terms like "moving", "heart-rending" have become debased through overuse but this was the real thing. This is how you're supposed to feel after Greek tragedy: awed and horrified, angry and questioning. Again, words are cheap but I had to sit down after I left the Traverse and urge you to go and see it. Have your faith in the form reinforced. Like many in Edinburgh, it is a monologue, like so few it really, really works.
Written and performed by Iraqi-American Heather Raffo, it switches between the lives of different women affected by the Gulf wars and stitches them into one story. The women she plays are Iraqis, Americans, ex-pats and those who are no longer sure. We see a pregnant doctor in a filthy maternity ward, a plastic surgeon's wife in London and a mother in suburban New Zealand but the play's central figure is the artist who has painted them all; these and Saddam Hussein's official portrait.
It's not the cleverest piece of theatre I've ever seen and for the first half hour it seems leisurely, to meander from one woman to another. But halfway through something happens and it tightens. Its repertoire of images start to echo round the room, picked up by different characters in different contexts. Things we have all seen on TV, stories we knew but had forgotten, do still forget, start to circle round each other. It gets faster and faster until, like music, it is overwhelming. Raffo's performance seemed leisurely at first but this was just pacing. The audience is as affected as by these events as the characters in Nine Parts of Desire. It's not the cleverest piece of theatre in the world because, like a bomb, it needn't be. But it is well aimed. It does bypass your defences, the distance and detachment we have behind our screens and papers. ----- Ben Clover
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