Annie Zaidi has a very nice review of Baghdad Burning, the National School of Drama play by the theatre group Aaranjan, based on Riverbend’s famous blog. I saw the play at the NSD a few days ago and was thinking of writing about it, but Annie has covered most bases. Like her, I enjoyed its episodic structure – the way it told many different stories quite economically. Also, the neatness of the set design and the simple but chilling touches: in one scene, as two characters discuss the piling up of Iraqi bodies after an American shelling (and the consequent difficulty in identifying relatives or friends), four performers clad in ghostly white glide across the back of the stage and position themselves one on top of the other – eventually making their exits one by one as the bodies remain unidentified.
A couple of the vignettes were extremely well done, notably the one at a bomb-devastated shelter that has turned into a tourist attraction (Nutan Surya is excellent here as an unbalanced old woman who lost all her children in the bombing and now shows visitors the “artistic designs” made by their bodies). And the scenes that had two different sets of characters occupying opposite ends of the stage (such as the one where a group of Iraqis watch with a mix of amusement and revulsion as the Americans install puppet governments and leaders) managed not to be jarring despite the overlapping dialogues. I agree that the “liberation” dance sequence was overlong, but the garishness was probably intentional. While I don’t care for kneejerk or simplistic anti-Americanism myself, the subject matter and perspective of this play would make it difficult to show American soldiers and politicians as anything other than crass, culture-insensitive bullies muscling their way into other people's lives. Besides, the play comes down equally hard on the local fundamentalists who deny women their freedom and identity, covering them up in shrouds, effectively turning them into living corpses. (On paper, some of these scenes would have been too didactic and in-your-face political for my taste, but the execution was very gripping. The atmospheric music and lighting helped.)
Incidentally Baghdad Burning was directed by Kirti Jain (a former director of the NSD), who writes a theatre column for the Business Standard Weekend; in her latest, she discusses the process of bringing the blog to the stage. (Usual warning: the BS website is problematic, so there’s a good chance this link won’t work in a few days.)