Direction : Lillete Dubey
Writer : Heather Raffo
Cast : Ira Dubey


Jiten S Merchant


Heather Raffo's 9 PARTS OF DESIRE is a meditation on "the pity of war" and its effects on the lives of ordinary people, specifically Iraqi women, during and between the two Gulf conflicts and subsequent occupation.

The play was apparently inspired by the painting of a nude woman clinging to a barren tree; and it does indeed seem like a portrait-gallery of diverse female characters spanning generations, ideologies, backgrounds, even continents; but sharing the common "spine" of suffering and surviving the most severe physical and emotional conditions.

9 PARTS OF DESIRELayla the painter is central to this group, setting the scene and returning later to offer further exposition and comment. So, to a lesser extent, is the exiled intellectual Huda, nursing her Scotch and providing historical perspective. But it is the image of Umm-Ghada, the black-clad mother of a girl who died when the Americans mistakenly bombed a civilian air-raid shelter, that encapsulates the play's essence in her taciturn, numbed (and numbing) narration of the horror of what happened.

However, for all its passion, the play seems a little too episodic in its many vignettes, lacking development towards a climax. Lillette Dubey's direction does not try to induce one; and thus the end does seem somewhat anticlimactic. Even so, the drama flows at even pace, allowing the script to "breathe", never flagging tension or interest. It is hard-hitting, humorous, compassionate and angry in turn, with movement and tempo-rhythm to match.

Much of the credit goes to Ira Dubey, the sole performer onstage, who gives something of a tour de force in embodying all these women. Her sheer concentration, energy and range, both expressive and emotional, allow her to paint vividly-etched characters, aided only by simple costume-changes. A minor drawback would perhaps be her near-constant reliance on the lower half of her vocal compass, with the result that some of the women sound a little alike. Although the Iraqi accent tends to vary, sometimes coming dangerously close to Russian. Even so, it is a vital, brave, searing performance.

The production is endowed with an extraordinarily communicative set, designed by Bhola Sharma and Lillette Dubey. This multi-layered mise-en-scene, aided by Mr. Sharma's evocative lighting, conjures a desolate, tragic tapestry, both internal and actual.

Similarly, Gandhaar Sangoram's sound-design (with help from Lillette and Ira Dubey) strikes all the right notes (literally) in supporting and commenting on the action. For example, the soft sound of a crying infant underlaying the Umm-Ghada sequence is utterly, appropriately chilling.

One wishes the audience (at least at the NCPA) would not clap or talk after each story...or worse, during a monologue. It breaks one's concentration and undoubtedly that of the actor onstage, also fracturing the cumulative build-up of tension and emotion.

NINE PARTS OF DESIRE is not for the squeamish, as made obvious by the involuntary gasps of horror heard from the audience during the performance. However, in its unflinching, unromanticised look at the traumas of war and oppression; and in its sheer humanity, the play offers a powerfully cathartic and intense experience.

*Jiten S Merchant was the English drama critic for the Times of India (Mumbai) from 1989 to 1997, after which he free-lanced for the paper and on the Internet. He has worked in amateur and professional theatre as actor and sound-designer, and has directed and performed in staged play-readings. Currently, he is an accredited reviewer for Seen and Heard International, one of the oldest and most widely-read online purveyors of music-criticism, for whom he covers concerts of Western Classical music and Opera in Mumbai. His recent pieces are available on his blog:

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