Many, including Nicolas Kent, might have thought the former Artistic Director of the Tricycle Theatre had been finished with plays concerning Iraq when his tenure at the Kilburn venue came to an end. At the Tricycle, he had repeatedly probed that area since the mid-1990s through a host of tribunal plays and political productions.
Yet when a former colleague on one of those show, Nabil Elouahabi, wafted Hassan Blasim’s short stories under the now freelance director’s nose, Kent smelled another tale to be told, one about a refugee desperately trying to assimilate but unable to leave the past behind.
Co-producers Elouahabi, the star of The Nightmares Of Carlos Fuentes, and Kent, the director, explain how and why they got hooked by Blasim’s tale:
Nabil Elouahabi (Actor/Producer)
In 2009 I was asked to narrate the excellent collection of short stories The Madman Of Freedom Square by Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim. I was moved (and disturbed) by them. They were visceral, affecting and powerful, and there was an immediacy to them. Each story had its own voice and The Nightmares Of Carlos Fuentes particularly affected me. A man escaping a world of horror through the alluring self-promise of assimilation. In the original short story he flees to Holland where he eagerly elevates all things European, desperately seeking approval and denying his Arab roots. Like a man possessed, he does all he can to distance and kill the Arab in him.
I found his inability to reconcile his history immediately fascinating, the vitriol with which he describes “Arabs” could easily have been lifted from an EDL pamphlet! Of course one can’t run from themselves forever and his tragic eventuality is destined.
Having worked with Nicolas Kent on several projects I knew he’d respond to the story given its political dimension. Now finding a writer to adapt the short story was needed; enter Rashid Razaq whom I’d worked with on a short play exploring the Arab spring. He immediately saw the potential and created a powerful narrative that jumped through time, giving it a thriller-esque feel. We then continued to work together for the next 18 months.
This is my first co-producing endeavor and I hope it will attract like-minded artists who are keen to change the prevalent theatrical lens! This play and its realisation is a personal triumph and I’m incredibly proud and privileged to be part of this project.
Nicolas Kent (Director/Producer)
Just after I had left the Tricycle Theatre in 2012, Nabil Elouahabi phoned me, brimming with enthusiasm, about an Iraqi short story writer. He insisted that I read Hassan Blasim’s short stories immediately, and the very next day a well-thumbed copy of The Madman Of Freedom Squareplopped through my letterbox.
Having directed more than seven plays at the Tricycle referencing Iraq since 1993 (starting with the Scott Arms To Iraq Inquiry– which initiated a series that later became known as The Tricycle Tribunal plays – and concluding in my last year there with Tactical Questioning about the British Army’s interrogation of Iraqi’s during the occupation of Basra) I felt that there was little more left to say on the subject. However, I was unprepared for the incredible vitality, humour and political insight of Blasim’s writing; no wonder he has just won The Independent’s Best Foreign Fiction 2014 Award.
The Nightmares Of Carlos Fuentes told the story of an Iraqi Sunni, married to a Shia, being forced to leave Baghdad and seek political asylum in Britain. It was very very funny but also incredibly moving. It beautifully described the problems of a refugee trying to assimilate in London and it also captured the day-to-day difficulties of life in post-war Iraq.
The brilliant young playwright Rashid Razaq was given the complex task of bringing the story to life on stage, and while he was writing the play its strong themes and events suddenly started to hit the headlines in our daily newspapers. A refugee from a Muslim country was granted asylum for the first time for being an atheist, the whole debate on immigration and “Britishness” ignited in our education system and more broadly in the European elections, and the conflict between the Sunnis and Shias exploded with the ISIS uprising in Iraq.
The play deals with these themes and questions. It does not pretend to provide answers to any of them, but it does offer insights into everyday life in Iraq and the problems faced by asylum seekers in London. The beauty of the writing is that it does this light-handedly through comedy and good story-telling, yet at the same time it packs a punch in its 80 minutes of true theatre. The Arcola, with its large surrounding refugee community and its informal stage, is a terrific home for the exciting premiere of this play.