6 February 2017
If, like me, you have never been to Dubai, Carmen Nasr’s vision of the city is unlikely to send you rushing for your passport. Dubailand presents it as a parasitic force which enchants and corrupts all that it touches. With a minimalist set, consisting of a number of illuminated steel poles and four versatile glass boxes, we are encouraged to perceive the city not in its monolithic majesty, but through the people who journey there, seeking wealth and salvation.
Amar (Adi Chugh), a construction worker and Indian immigrant, sees Dubai as a brave new world with endless, fulfilling work which will enable him to provide for his daughter, Lali (Aanya Chadha). Jamie (Nicholas Banks), a British ex-pat working as a ‘Creative Digital PR Specialist’, selling properties to the obscenely rich, is enticed by the boozy Friday brunches, his opulent apartment and the careless existence the city affords. When an old love interest, journalist Clara (Mitzli Rose Neville) re-enters Jamie’s life, he is challenged to see the city’s seedy side. At first, he does not believe her stories of appalling working conditions, the withholding of passports. Yet as his and Amar’s stories inexorably entwine, Dubai’s gorgeous facade begins to crack.
I enjoyed Dubailand, which, for the most part, is a thought-provoking and well-written piece. The acting is uniformly strong, with good performances from Chugh and Banks, and an excellent cameo from Belinda Stewart-Wilson as Jamie’s plain speaking boss, Amanda. Leon Williams is terrifically entertaining as Tommie, a charismatic and egotistical colleague who acts as a worrying portent of Jamie’s future, and Reena Lalbihari’s Deena is a delightfully smiling sociopath.
The play is elevated by a number of striking scenes – a crass discussion at a brunch, tense exchanges on the repercussions of moral superiority, and most memorable of all, a taxi driver (Varun Sharma) questioning why the British always cry after a night out. Nasr also utilises a number of intriguing motifs, such as dark and light, food and drink. The repetition of such ideas helps reinforce the notion that all who live in her Dubai fall for its hypnotic and destructive charms. It is an admirable and awful creation, which speaks highly of her writing.
Nevertheless, the play is undermined by a muddled narrative, with key events unfolding for implausible reasons. Clara is set up to be Jamie’s morality pet, yet is portrayed as something of a straw liberal, without much journalistic integrity. Coupled with Jamie’s sincere overtures on the virtues of his new life, it is difficult to comprehend why he works so hard to advance her project, which puts his job at risk. In turn, certain key decisions by both characters, involving some convenient film footage, remove a layer of subtlety from proceedings.
Amar’s narrative arc, which hinges on a loving father being plunged into the depths of despair after one selfish action, poses fundamental difficulties. The conflict between wanting better living conditions and having to make moral concessions to achieve them makes him a foil for Jamie, who used to ‘[give] a shit about the world’. Yet not only do we learn little of Amar’s current or possible future accommodation, either through his words or Clara’s discoveries, but it is frustratingly unclear what his moral concessions actually entail. Coupled with the fact that the most convincing element of his characterisation is his desire to provide for his daughter, and that we do not witness much of his turmoil, his self-destructive behaviour seems little more than a plot device designed to impact the British characters. This has the unfortunate effect of implying that his importance is largely as a catalyst for their subsequent actions, which I’m sure runs contrary to Nasr’s intent.
Dubailand offers a striking portrayal of the titular city, which does great credit to its writer. In turn, it is characterised by a good cast and a number of thought-provoking and well worked motifs. Nevertheless, the central narrative feels at times implausible and incomplete, making this intriguing play a slightly unsatisfying experience.
Until 21 February 2017