The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes, Arcola Theatre, London – review

We first see protagonist Salim handcuffed to the furniture. This could be military detention, sectarian abduction . . . in fact, we realise after a few seconds, it is a sex game with his posh new British lover, and he is manacled to the headboard of their bed. It is the first of several novel, though modest, subversions of our expectations. Over the next 80-odd minutes we come to realise why, by the end, such handcuffing has become a matter of some necessity.

The scenes in Rashid Razaq’s adaptation jump non-chronologically between 2006 and 2011 (the final moments are set in 2009), offering a portrait of an Iraqi Everyman forced by domestic tensions following the Iraq war to flee and find asylum in Britain, where he adopts the alias Carlos Fuentes in order to try to escape stereotypes of Arabism. But he cannot escape his own memories. To judge from its stage version, Hassan Blasim’s short story is a matter not of pretended insight but rather of intensely sympathetic observation.

Nicolas Kent’s nearly three decades at the helm of London’s Tricycle Theatre were marked by a number of productions that showed a political and moral directness, neither chin-strokingly abstruse nor agitprop-strident. His first London stage production since leaving the Trike is driven by the same spirit of straightforward engagement.

Nabil Elouahabi as Salim/Carlos, Caroline Langrishe as lover (and later second wife) Lydia and a brace of supporting players are consistently in the moment, whether bantering in a London restaurant or sweeping up in the aftermath of a Baghdad bombing. But more and more ineluctably, the point is made that Carlos inhabits two moments at once, as the shades of his now-dead first family try to reclaim him and simultaneously disavow him: Carlos, they argue tormentingly, can have no part in Salim’s history. If the troops we were so keen to pull out can suffer such severe post-traumatic stress, what about the ordinary civilian inhabitants with no alternative?

The production is not perfect: the Carlos/Salim identity crisis could perhaps be more explicitly expressed; conversely, the use of scene-change videos of Bush, Blair and their successors comes close to attitudinising. But overall this is an unpresumptuous, unpretentious and above all a deeply sensitive piece of work; Thursday evening performances are followed by panel discussions on related topics.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.