The play is "based on the experiences of those living through conflict, war and upheaval."Kieran Tam

Very rarely, a piece of theatre hits on the ideal combination of writing, performance, emotion and reality. Nine Parts of Desire at the Corpus Playroom is a tragically evocative evening of drama which succeeds in balancing this mix almost to perfection.

Based on the experiences of those living through conflict, war and upheaval, the script is brought together from numerous interviews with women in the Middle East, woven together by playwright Heather Raffo. Inspired by her visit to a Baghdad art gallery during Saddam Hussein’s rule, she developed the work to give voice to the experiences of women she interviewed over the years.

“The writing is aggressively political, and the opinions of many of the women portrayed are thought-provoking in the extreme.”

Presented as a series of monologues, nine lives are explored by three actresses, who take us through experiences of oppression, war, cancer, uranium, families, and, somewhere along the way, N’Sync. Utterly unpredictable and unsentimental, each explores the variety of suffering and joy, turmoil and compassion encountered moment by moment and day by day. Layal is the artist whose image Savagery was the catalyst for Raffo’s writing; and here, played with gut-wrenching sincerity by Zobia Haq, she recounts her ‘privileged’ position of being the only female artist in Iraq to be permitted to paint nudes.

But there is a huge physical and emotional price for her to pay, in return for her artistic freedom, and in her painting Savagery her depiction of a naked woman desperately clinging to a tree represents but a tiny portion of the horrors she has witnessed. It is testament to Haq’s strength as an actor, that when she subsequently reappears as the unnamed Doctor to recount the injuries and deformities inflicted by the most vicious of modern weaponry, she is an emotionally distinct character.

Likewise, Maya Yousif, who takes on the marathon task of portraying four separate characters, manages to mould and adapt in her delivery and maturity, so that we focus entirely on the truth of the personal stories being related, and we are no longer in the safe and protected confines of The Playroom. Her deeply unsettling and defiant delivery of Huda’s life is a high point of the evening.

"Yousif's deeply unsettling and defiant delivery of Huda’s life is a high point of the evening."Aman Sahota

We see the how the depth of anger and despair has spurned her to political activism, the horrific consequences this has for her, and that no matter how far away she may travel, she will never be able to remove herself from what she has lived through. And yet she can also bring to life the character of Amal, with her tales of being betrayed by her husband(s), her love for her children, and her heart-breaking loyalty.

Leila Sakur completes the acting line-up, with her interspersed depiction of The American (giving the names of her Iraqi family relatives who have been killed), a young girl in Baghdad whose innocence helps her to block out the terrors which surround her, and a mother whose family were wiped out along with hundreds of other civilians when their air raid shelter was hit by an American ‘smart-bomb.’ Her use of pauses and silences is testament to the power of stillness in acting.

Tying all of these performances together is the strength of Faye Guy’s direction, which keeps the authenticity of the writing shining through, and never allows the performances to drift from the honesty of the real life experiences. Huge credit is due to the level of professionalism involved in developing so many characters with a small cast.

“This production is proof that Cambridge student drama has an abundance of integrity, intelligence and conscience.”

The focus is always on the strength of these women, and their various ways of surviving. Keeping the balance of emotion and projection in a space as intimate as the Corpus Playroom is a demanding task, and with more performances the nuisances of the delivery will grow and develop. The choreography (Jonathan Ben-Shaul) and original music composition (Arthus Robijns) bring an additional layer of complexity to the sadness and hope of the narrative, without overwhelming the script.

The parts of desire in the title refer to an Arab fable that God created ten parts of sexual desire: gave one to men, and the rest to women. The power and complexity of female sexuality, the betrayal and aggression of the male world, and the triumph of personal insight fuse into a hugely moving philosophical and emotional evening of modern drama.

The writing is aggressively political, and the opinions of many of the women portrayed are thought-provoking to the extreme. The directing and the acting live up to the challenges of the writing, and this production is proof that Cambridge student drama has an abundance of integrity, intelligence and conscience

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