Nine Parts of Desire is set to explore the circumstances of "a variety of different women who have all been affected by the war."Aaron Kilercioglu

Nine Parts of Desire is the next show from the mind of director Faye Guy, coming to the Corpus Playroom this week. The play follows the lives of nine Iraqi women in a series of interwoven monologues. Heather Raffo, the writer, is an Iraqi-American woman who visited Baghdad in 2003 and saw a painting called Savagery by Layla Al-Attar. It got her thinking about how women process war, suffering and pain, and she began the process of interviewing hundreds of Iraqi women around the world.

“This is about giving a voice to Iraqi women, and women in general”

I began by asking Guy which themes the play brings to light about the women: “How resilient [they are], for a start; [they are] women who are living their lives in the face of adversity. It also talks about the shared experience of women, even though none of them ever meet.”

“They perceive things differently: one of the characters is an exiled intellectual living in London, who supports the war because she hates Saddam. Another is Saddam Hussein’s personal portrait artist, so she is very close to the centre of the regime.” Maya Yousif, playing four characters including Huda, the exiled intellectual, agrees: “This is about giving a voice to Iraqi women, and women in general”.

I wanted to find out more about how Guy had proceeded to link the monologues together. “They are linked by physical theatre pieces. It all joins together. We’ve got Jonathon Ben-Shaul doing choreography, set to original music by Arthur Robijns (e x i l e, The Tempest). The abaya, a large piece of cloth worn differently by each woman, is an important part of the play; it is incorporated into this physical theatre as the transference of material from one character to the next. Another thing which links the monologues is the copper bath that represents the river Tigris; water is a source of life that cities, and peoples, grow around.”

"This production has an all-female cast who are either of Middle Eastern descent or Muslim, and forms part of the increasing number of plays with BME casts and production teams."Kieran Tam

I asked Zobia Haq whether she had a favourite monologue: “I find Layal [Saddam Hussain’s portrait artist] interesting because she’s not a victim. You don’t feel sorry for her. You don’t tend to sympathise with her, and she’s so confident. But there is this conflict within her, that you sense. She’s almost trapped”. I found the role of an artist employed by the dictatorship fascinating, and I asked whether this conflict arose because, in being a portrait artist, there involves a certain level of glorification? Haq agreed: “She’s got privilege. She’s very near that centre. But she’s not free either”.

The plays explore a variety of different women who have all been affected by the war. I asked Guy how she thought the play dealt with the different levels of privilege that each woman has. “The American feels incredibly guilty that she is away from the conflict, and is stuck because she can only watch it all on TV. She is sickened when a woman turns to her and says ‘Oh, the war is all so horrible, isn’t it’, while they’re both getting pedicures. People don’t realise that she is Iraqi because she is white-passing and so she hears what people really think.”

“In a world of travel bans and immigration, this play is a pertinent reminder of how these themes affect women”

This production has an all-female cast who are either of Middle Eastern descent or Muslim, and forms part of the increasing number of plays with BME casts and production teams. But there is still a pronounced lack of diversity in the Cambridge theatre scene. After discussing the themes of this play, Sackur launched into a scathing description of the place of BME students in the ADC. “I think the ADC should have a BME theatre rep. […] There have been so many examples this year where the ADC have cast white people for roles specifically written for people of colour. […] It’s really intimidating to audition.”

Maybe more so than for other previews I have done in the past,  Nine Parts of Desire presents itself as strikingly political. The play bubbles with tension; the debates around the ability for Western feminism to apply its ideals to the Islamic world; with war and its consequences for women; with the status of refugees in a world increasingly hostile to them. In a world of travel bans and immigration, this play is a pertinent reminder of how these themes affect women.

Nine Parts of Desire runs from Tues 16th - Sat 20th May, 7:00pm at the Corpus Playroom

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