Kelly is sixteen when she first meets her father. She had been led to believe that her mother had no idea about his whereabouts, but this wasn’t quite true. Her father lives in Iraq, in Baghdad, where he works as a museum director which makes Kelly half-Iraqi.
During their first awkward encounter, he presents Kelly with an ancient vase, a priceless artefact, as her link to a land, a past she knows and cares little about. But Kelly is unimpressed with this gift. She simply wants a father who is a presence in her life, someone to take care of her, to love her, to act like a dad is supposed to.
Written by Mike Bartlett, whose previous play My Child attracted much acclaim, Artefacts is an ambitious piece, tackling themes both domestic and international, intimate and sweeping. In doing so, it sets itself too many hurdles and ends up being heavy-handed and preachy in the process.
When Kelly travels to Baghdad later in the play, to visit her father and return the vase, her keenness to involve herself in a situation she barely understands is somewhat over-stated, the parallels with American and British involvement in the conflict in Iraq rather too overt. Her half-sister Raya has been kidnapped and Kelly’s father must decide whether to sell the vase and pay the ransom or take a moral stand, no matter how painful the outcome. To Kelly, there is simply no decision, no choice to be made on the matter, and she attacks her father for his perceived weakness.
There are further contrasts. At the end of the play Kelly and Raya are brought together, and the latter’s fire and anger about the situation in her country, her willingness to go to any lengths to right what she regards as wrongs, stands at odds with Kelly’s laid-back, Heat-fixated way of life.
There are a lot of fascinating themes and ideas bouncing around, but the plot often feels like it has been pieced together solely for the purpose of showcasing these ideas it doesn’t help that, with the exception of Kelly, the characterization is sketchy at best. Bartlett is forced to spend a lot of time trying to make his premise plausible, and though the play holds together while you’re watching it, no sooner are you out in the nippy Shepherd’s Bush air, then it starts to slide to pieces.
Despite this, the writing is often accomplished, with Bartlett displaying an excellent ear for teenspeak; Kelly’s early monologues are both fluid and true, tripping and skipping along, peppered with references to shopping and Charlotte Church’s thighs. He also has some interesting things to say about objects and memory, the way our possessions connect us to our past, the significance of the things we surround ourselves with.
Lizzy Watts is all adolescent energy as Kelly, happily wading into a world she doesn’t fully grasp, her mouth often running ahead of her mind. None of the other characters really take shape though. This is a play with an admirable willingness to think big but it’s also one where you can see the scaffolding all too clearly.
Artefacts will be at the Bush Theatre to March 22 and then touring until May 2008