Return عودة : The Yard Theatre, 3-7 July (Tube Hackney Wick)
Return is a stunning and timely piece of verbatim theatre that tells the story of Dina Mousawi, a British Iraqi woman from Bradford, and her return to Baghdad after the Occupation of 2003 to ask women about their ‘stories’. This is no stereotypical tale of woe, as can be seen from the play’s trailer. Painful, funny and intelligent testimonies from Iraqi women, both living in Baghdad and in exile, are juxtaposed with Dina’s childhood and decision to return.
Mousawi plays herself, and, like the other four formidable actresses in the all-women cast, gives a magnificent performance. Her startling metamorphosis from uncomfortable interviewer into impassioned respondent is one of the highlights of the play. Indeed, one of the great things about the play is its reflexiveness about the difficulties involved in the project of re-presenting unheard or marginalised voices. In a powerful scene, we see the interviewer dejectedly reflecting upon her task when one of her interviewees doesn’t turn up. Moments later, she learns from an email that twenty year old Aya al Lamie has been in the Iraqi Tahrir Square campaigning for the release of other women. The chilling silence that follows is accompanied by a full-screen backdrop of al Lamie’s portrait, detailing her kidnapping from Tahrir Square, and her subseqent torture. Further details can be found on the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq website.
The processes behind the construction of the play are laid bare: we watch the set being constructed; an actress slowly adjusting her pony-tail before making her entrance. This makes the process of researching and producing the play visible to the audience, so that we too become complicit as voyeurs in these stories, and compelled to act. And Return certainly presents these voices in a way in which they cannot be ignored. A clear sense of defiance and determination permeates the play.
The subtle tensions between Iraqi human right’s activists in the diaspora and women who remained in Iraq are convincingly presented. Of course, this is only a snapshot, albeit a multifarious one, of Iraqi women’s experiences. The play could be more explicit about who and what is left out. Perhaps the most marginalised voices remain inaccessible to Mousawi and the audience. Nevertheless, this piece of theatre asks urgent questions that demand attention: How do claims about the liberation of women and progressive constitutional commitments relate to the fears of ordinary women living in Iraq? How can Iraq move towards transitional justice when its people are still living with an excruciating sense of fear? We are forced to face these questions which are so easily sidelined by the media.
The stage is used with striking ingenuity. Rapid scene changes combine with a creative use of multimedia, in which video footage is juxtaposed with projected emails, and shot through with choreographed movement and monologues from the women. In one scene, the semi-transparent curtain drops moments before the five women are pinned against the back wall in brightly coloured dresses. A threatening sense of violence underpins this extremely comic scene.
Texts are also used inventively, and appear on bodies, curtains, pillows and screens. The use of Arabic throughout is central to the atmosphere and energy of the play, and Mousawi’s easy Arabic improvisation demanding ID from an audience member is as intimidating as it is wonderful. The play reveals how, for many children, life under Saddam Hussein was often ordinary, comfortable and fun. Siblings sleep under the stars and share childhood jokes. The everyday and the extraordinary become indistinguishable, and the heterogeneity of the women’s stories is at the heart of the play’s success, and its message.
Mousawi researched and produced the play with very little financial support. As with many dramatic projects, funding has been sparse since the announcement of the Olympics in 2007. Ironically performing in Hackney, just three miles from the main Olympic site in Stratford, the women have had only two weeks to rehearse and little budget to speak of. This makes the achievement of the play even more remarkable. Although Return offers no easy answers, it leaves the audience with a profound sense of discomfort. As viewers, we must listen seriously and think very hard in order to respond to this unease in a responsible and ethical way.