Dubai. A paradise? A prison? A blueprint for the Future? A reminder of the worst excesses of a brutal past? Money? Humanity? Carmen Nasr’s new play, Dubailand, raises these questions but never proposes any answers. Predictable and full of stereotypes rather than fully drawn characters, it is a play which doesn’t really know its way or purpose. But over its 90 minutes, facts are unearthed which puzzle and alarm – and you leave more troubled than when you arrived.
If you think that all this is morally repugnant you can get off your moral high horse and fuck off back to your fucking admin job, half your wages sucked up by sodding taxes and live in a terrace in Seven fucking Sisters with six strangers, watching Polish people trudging miserably back and forth to their jobs, and underprivileged kids stuffing their fat gobs with chicken and chips and dirty kebabs and homeless people in the doorways of betting shops with their big hopeless eyes and matted beards and flea-ridden dogs… it’s fucking disgraceful, it’s disgusting…here the pavements are perfect, they’re spotless, in fact they employ people to scrape chewing gum off the floors of the malls – now that’s progress…The reason people love Dubai – it’s just no one wants to admit it – is that everybody is in their right place. Everyone knows their place.
Carmen Nasr’s new play, Dubailand, now playing at the Finborough Theatre, is a curious piece. Part morality play, part satire, part expose, it wears its political correctness on its sleeve, but, in theatrical terms, it doesn’t seem sure of its own purpose.
It’s set in Dubai and most of the characters we meet are either involved in the construction, or marketing and sale, of huge towering edifices which rival each other for height and skyline domination.
The awful predatory white people (in the case of one character, her skin colour is out of step with her white sensibility) supervise the construction and sale of the glamorous apartments in the sleek, sublime towers; the poorly paid, little-better-than-Egyptian-slaves-building-the-pyramids Indians who send their pay cheques home to their distant families while they suffer ignominy after ignominy as they actually build the skyscrapers.
This is a tale of two workforces, one that reflects life in modern Western countries and not just Dubai. It forces you to confront the reality that the 21st Century almost insists that a slave underclass make life better for the more well to do. With Trump causing chaos in America and Brexit casting its sepuchral shade over the UK and Europe, pressure on the working man has rarely been more intense. Dubailand taps into those realities.
Unhappily, however, it does so in a quite predictable and less than thrilling way.
The lonely Indian worker, separated from his child and family, pines for his old life – as well as the new life he dream of – but must survive the vile conditions he is forced to endure. The worse-than-poor-house accomodation and standard of living, while he labours long high above the ground, takes its toll.
The acerbic and strident journalist, argumentative at airport security when she refuses to part with marzipan laced chocolate, sniffs for a story about human rights violations. Her former lover, Jamie, just happens to be in with the marketing big-wigs and may, or may not, be a willing source for her next big story.
Jamie is a sad creature – seduced by the possibility of endless money but troubled by the way it is made, willing to sell his soul but perhaps not at any price, too innocent to smell betrayal when it swirls all around him. Rather like a ten year old, happy when his hair is tousled by an older idol, he likes stallions and falcons, symbols of power and status, but when confronted with a true moral conundrum cannot face doing the right thing.
At first, Nasr’s narrative seems like it might be in the glamour espionage category. But it’s not. More soap opera than incisive social commentary, it relies too heavily on stock characters, more stereotypes than characters, and all too predictable scenarios. From the first scene it seems clear what will happen to Amar (and it does) and when Jamie talks about a live feed, you can almost hear the gears clicking into place.
What surprises the writing offers comes not in plot twists or character development, but in facts sewn into the dialogue. Haughty Amanda’s assertion that the world economy now works on the notion that someone somewhere will work very hard for very little, certainly for much less than you are prepared to work, strikes a too-true chord. The realisation that somewhere a Government has decreed that you can’t leave their country if you owe money to their bank strikes you as appalling, but simultaneously unarguable.
Betrayal is everywhere. Co-workers turn on co-workers; former lovers turn on their former loved one; friends turn on friends. Money talks, fear rules. The elite shall inherit the towers.
Dubailand does not cover any new ground. It might have worked better as a satire, or as a tale of romance gone savagely wrong. Instead, it meanders and slowly tells a typical tale of corruption and the corrupting power of money. An attempt to achieve a poetic sensibility, either through the concept of stars or the passport confusion inspired by marzipan, never really takes hold, never works.
Still, there are some good performances. Reena Lalbihari is excellent as Deena, a go-getter who has sold out her ethnic heritage to embrace power and wealth. Adi Chugh does splendid work as the gentle Amar, the star gazer who dreams and hopes, and eventually flies. The final scene between him and his daughter Lali (a wide-eyed, adorable Aanya Chadha) is gentle and quite touching.
Belinda Stewart-Wilson uses her splendidly throaty voice to great effect as the vile, calculating Amanda. She gives a tart, unerringly accurate portrait of corporate horror. Nicholas Banks is a trifle too bland as the hapless Jamie, and he is not aided by a far-fetched turn from Mitzi Rose Neville as the devious reporter Clara.
Director Georgie Staight ensures the play keeps a good pace, but even so it drags – Nasr’s pace is too slow, there are too many words not enough of which have exact purpose. The subplot about Amar’s sale of information really goes nowhere.
If you have dreamed about the joys of Dubai, this play may make you think again. But if you see Dubai for what it is, a modern empire built on human blood and bones but with an advertising campaign that suggests that no place has ever treated its staff as well, Dubailand is unlikely to rattle any sabres for you.