Aftermath, at the Malthouse – Melbourne Festival

Theatre, at its heart, is an act of sharing, of storytelling. For all of its decorations, it is this simple truth that sustains it across the centuries. Because it is fleeting, it asks us to hold things in our memories once the lights have dimmed. At its most intimate, it relies upon a sense of communion between audience and performer, and is often a repository of things we might wish to forget, but which it is essential we do not.

Aftermath, as conceived by playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen and performed by The New York Theater Workshop, transcends its simple staging to become something quite special. Blank and Jensen have taken a verbatim approach, compiling hours and hours of personal testimony from Iraqi citizens and refugees to craft a tale that is both sobering and uplifting. It presents as a documentary piece about Iraq after 2003’s shock-and-awe campaign by the United States, waged in the futile search for Saddam’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction. Here, the personal is inescapably political.

a deftly affecting work that drops its own shock and awe

The piece begins gently, warmly. We meet an Iraqi pharmacist, whose story is translated to us through an interpreter, Shahid. It is as though we have been invited into someone’s living room to share tea. Shahid, who learnt his English through the old text-adventure games of a lost computer age, is quickly revealed as the lens through which the interviewees can tell their stories. There is Asad and his partner Fadilah, two artists in love; Fouad and Naimah, married cooks speaking from their new home in Jordan; Yassar, a slick young dermatologist; Basima, a young wife and mother: and finally, Abdul-Aliyy, an elder tribesman and Imam.

Their stories flow into each other, dancing between English and Arabic, mediated by Shahid and his own personal reflection. Despite the acknowledged shadow of Saddam lurking in the background, there is an expansive, almost festive spirit to their recollections of everyday life in Baghdad – until their stories, inevitably, circle towards March 20th, 2003, and the US-led campaign, and all that followed. Suddenly all security vanishes, and we are given an intensely personal window into the chaos of occupied Iraq -the initial benefits of the US presence disappear in the fog of war, and the iron-fisted rule of Saddam collapses into sectarian thuggery and indiscriminate, unpredictable violence.

Each performer impresses. They are utterly committed to the stories they tell, and any initial reservations about the simple staging are soon dispelled by their deep connection to the material. For one or two moments in particular, the actor disappears, and we feel the visceral horror of what is being related. Yet nothing is calculated to shock, and the restraint shown by all contributes to the power of Aftermath. It draws deeply from the oral tradition that the Iraqi culture is famous for, and for one-and-a -half hours, the curtains of media and spin are drawn back and the human face behind this most divisive war is revealed. Aftermath is only here for a short time, but will stay in your thoughts for much, much longer.