There was once a rather daft Iraqi soldier, new to his job policing the curfew. His mission is simple: if he spies anyone out and about after 9pm, he is to shoot on sight. At about 8.30pm, the soldier sees an old man trot into view and shoots him dead. ‘Why did you do that?’ ask the other, flabbergasted, soldiers. ‘I know that man,’ replied the soldier, ‘He never would have made it home in time.’
Amidst the blazing, politicised headlines, it is easy to forget that, for thousands of Iraqis, this ongoing, Rubik’s cube mess of a war has become an everyday reality. It has become something Iraqis have had to learn to laugh about. New York Theatre Workshop Production’s Aftermath, by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, contains a cluster of similar, wrenching jokes that divulge illuminating local details about life in Iraq, following America’s initial invasion in 2003. The script is a tapestry of interviews held with Iraqi refugees now living in Jordan; there are some delicate, unassuming and illustrative stories here, which gently open our eyes to life amidst a constant, ever-changing, conflict.
These are gentle stories and fragile characters, though – and the Old Vic Tunnels, deep beneath the Waterloo train tracks, is perhaps not the ideal location. This underground venue, with its dank and shadowy vaults, accompanied by the constant rattle of trains passing overhead, is certainly atmospheric. Indeed, it’d make a great location for a site-specific, interactive piece about life in a conflict zone. But this is not a promenade piece. Instead, the production is relatively traditional in its staging and we stay seated in one, less evocative location, for the duration of these stories. Though the sound of thundering trains initially adds a certain texture to the show – we are (sort of) hearing these stories in the aural context in which many of them emerged – it eventually becomes obfuscating, blotting out the quieter moments and diminishing their impact.
Still, the stories that filter through the booming backdrop are worth straining for. Translator Shahid (a sympathetic, neutral performance from Fajer Al-Kasai) is at the centre of the piece – he is at the side of every interviewee and sews the scenes neatly together. He is also the main source of humour in this nicely shaded show, which is careful not to over-define its characters or its message. Early on, Shahid tells a joke about an Iraqi man searching out the best repair deal for his TV. He goes to a catalogue of repairmen and their prices are all too expensive. Finally, he comes across a chap offering a surprisingly cheap deal. The man returns to the shop the next day, only to find a picture of Saddam slapped on front of his still broken TV; ‘That’s all you’ll be watching, anyway,’ insists the repairman.
A similar joke pops up in The Lives of Others, during an incident in the Stasi canteen, when a young recruit dares to defy the regime by laughing at it. He tells a joke about the sun, which responds to the Stasi’s tireless interrogation all day long, right up until sunset, when the sun finally retorts, ‘I don’t have to speak to you now. I’m in the West.’ Jokes such as these are important, artistic records of authoritarian regimes – as well as inspiring evidence of man’s desire, man’s reasoned ability, to fight back.
Dermatologist, Yassar (played by a shamelessly slimy and preening Amir Arison), sustains the unassuming humour that pulses through Aftermath. Desperate to be seen as a contemporary hero, a man of the moment, he looks amusingly retro in his open shirt and golden chains. When he describes his skill as a dermatologist – ‘I can diagnose…down the phone!’ - he delivers the line like Superman. Later, despite blithely insisting on his own materialism, we watch as he struggles to abandon his homeland. It is neither money nor stature that is binding Yassar to Iraq but something instinctive – something instinctive and, perhaps, spiritual.
The sections involving Abdul-Aliyy, an imam ejected from Iraq after being accused of terrorism, are tricky and provocative. Demosthenes Chyrsan plays the role with a fiery indignation, which gradually becomes difficult to stomach. It feels at odds with the gentler arguments voiced in this show. I found myself instinctively recoiling from this figure. Is that prejudice? Is it down to Chrysan’s forceful performance? Or is it the near-hysterical media coverage, which frequently depicts ‘that imam with a hook’ but spends much less time looking at the positive, Muslim role models? It is too complicated to unravel – but it disturbed me that I might not be responding to this Muslim leader on stage with an open heart or open mind.