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Desert of the Real

Review by Frankie ParhamConflict can always make good drama. From Homer’s Iliad to Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, warfare offers the perfect environment for man to seek the answers to questions of morality and consequently recognise his own insignificance in a brutal world. Max Seddon and Ben Judah, creators of The Desert of the Real, seem to strive for the same artistic profundity – and they almost do it.First we meet Nick (Rupert Cohen), an archetypal Oxford post-grad student,obsessing over his thesis. He is too self-centred to notice that his girlfriend, Alice (Hana Chambers), is only seeking emotional attention when she proposes a trip to Iraq.  Alice, however, ends up actually going, enlisting the help of the mysterious Dr. Regev (James Schneider) an Israeli born in Baghdad. We follow her tumultuous journey towards the capital via a crazed driver (Roger Granville), Dr. Regev’s psychopathic friend Jamal (Oliver Harvey) and an unstable American officer (John Maher).Back in Oxford, Nick pines for his girlfriend, whining at the long-suffering Chloe (Rachel Smith), who happily welcomes the arrival of charismatic Ibrahim al-Ansarn (James Kingston). The alleged Arab arts enthusiast is in fact a terrorist, out to capture Nick in an attempt to blackmail his father, who aided the start of nuclear warfare in Ibrahim’s homeland.The plot itself reflects how much Seddon and Judah are giving their audience to deal with, not to mention the number of heart-felt speeches and tantrums they burden their actors with. However, the entire cast take on the difficult task with admirable gusto, and there are a number of performances which truly stand out: Kingston is marvellously erratic, while Granville flexibly doubles as several angry Arabs. Chambers also gives the play a solid backbone, portraying the Oxford student we all relate to – oblivious to the consequences of her actions.Yet, for all the ironic juxtapositions between the petty preoccupations of privileged Westerners and ethnically-charged conflicts of the East, the play never makes clear what message it wishes to give. Are we supposed to feel remorse for Ibrahim and the sufferings of his country, after we have just seen him in a farcical tussle with a “dirty Jew”? The shift in tone is too sudden, similar to the voiceover (which acts as a diversion during scene changes): it’ll suddenly declare that another coup has broken out in the Ukraine or China. Is the world falling apart? Frankly, you don’t know what you’re supposed to be concentrating on by the end.Much of the fun of the play comes from hearing references to Oxford life (prepare for allusions to the Turf and scenes in the King’s Arms), but even this begins to wear thin. The characters are either unexplained (Dr. Regev’s intentions are completely indecipherable) or deserve much more development.  While the last scene hints at Alice’s reasons for escape,too much time is spent pulling at other strings to give an answer. It’s all intriguing enough to go and see, but too confusing to enjoy.

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