London play on Iraq aims to get behind the headlines

Mon Jul 2, 2012 11:15am EDT

* New play tells story of Iraq from inside and out

* Actress Mousawi combines memories with research

* Piece part of festival exploring "being British"

By Mike Collett-White

LONDON, July 2 (Reuters) - A new play being staged at an experimental theatre in east London aims to get behind the headlines and tell the world what it has really been like living in Iraq before and since the 2003 invasion.

Conceived by Dina Mousawi, the hour-long piece is based on her experiences as a girl being brought up in Baghdad who later moved to England at the age of eight.

As an adult the actress became frustrated with how Iraq was portrayed in the media in the wake of the war, and particularly how those accounts, both fact and fiction in the form of movies, were almost always seen through the eyes of men.

She set off for Baghdad in 2011 to interview ordinary women about their lives, and that testimony, combined with her own childhood memories, make for a nuanced portrayal of Iraq viewed both from the inside and out.

"I would get frustrated about the media's representation of the Iraq war," the 33-year-old told Reuters after rehearsals late last week.

"Every time I watched a film it was always the men's stories, it was always the soldiers or the terrorists - 'Green Zone', 'The Hurt Locker', all these programmes were about men and I was like, 'what about the women?'"

The resulting play weaves love stories, jokes, humour and childish innocence into the more familiar images of violence, fear and death that fill news bulletins from Iraq today.

It also reminds viewers that Saddam Hussein, who was executed after being ousted by the U.S.-led invasion, was once a father figure and hero to many Iraqis.

"Up to eight years old all I saw were images on the news of piles and piles of dead Iranian bodies (during the Iran-Iraq war)," Mousawi recalled.

"Every time I'd see that I'd say 'yes, we're winning the war'. All I ever knew was that Saddam was the hero and (late Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah) Khomeini was the baddie, and that Saddam would protect me and wouldn't let Khomeini come and get me."

VERBATIM THEATRE COMES TO LIFE

By jumping between episodes of Mousawi and her mother's life in Baghdad and Bradford, reconstructions of interviews with Iraqi women and references to war and violence, director Poonam Brah attempted to make verbatim theatre more dramatic.

Several London theatres have experimented with the genre in recent years, although the plays have tended to be based on reconstructions of public inquiries into issues ranging from Guantanamo Bay to Northern Ireland.

"That is the thing that is really original (about our play)," said Brah, co-founder of theatre company 3Fates.

"They were all pretty dry, so we also want to challenge that idea of the reverence of the truth by doing it in a more theatrical way."

The Return opens on Tuesday at The Yard Theatre, located just a few hundred yards (metres) from the Olympic Park where much of the summer games will be held.

Running for five nights, it is part of a summer season that aims to present a picture of what it means to be British, particularly from the point of view of people of mixed heritage.

For The Yard's associate artistic director Tarek Iskander, the objective of the July 3-28 festival was to give a voice to people who may not be heard amid the clamour for attention ahead of the Olympic Games.

"There's a lot of packaging about what Britain is at the moment, and there was this sense of 'how do we give voices to people that aren't really being reflected in the Olympics?'"

"What I think we've ended up with is quite personal stories, and I think what they're all doing is kind of grappling with what it means to be British. It's surprising to me what an international context we define ourselves in."

The Yard Theatre (www.theyardtheatre.co.uk) has been given funding for the next three years as part of a scheme to ensure that the Olympic Park and its surroundings continue to thrive after the Games are over.

"We really hope we can be part of keeping that place alive," Iskander explained.

"There's always that danger that it ends up being a ghost town, and people feel displaced. There's a lot of anger in the local community about the Olympics and the feeling that it doesn't reflect them or represent them." (Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato)

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