Dubai is full of contradictions. On the one hand it’s an awe-inspiring, glossy city, competing architecturally with the likes of New York, whilst boasting summer weather all year round. But from a more sceptical angle, it’s a capitalist haven in crippling denial of the poor conditions imposed upon the migrant workers building it. Carmen Nasr’s new play Dubailand, currently premiering at the Finborough Theatre, brings these two starkly different worlds onto the same stage. The story being told is an important one, dark and contemporary, and both the writing and acting are first class.
Jamie (Nicholas Banks) has flown to Dubai – playground of the rich – to better the admin job, low wage and zone five flat-share of his London life. Here he lives in wealth and indulgence, wearing suave suits to work, soaring up skyscrapers and attending piss-up brunches for expats on a weekly basis. Jamie works in property advertising with Amanda (Belinda Stewart-Wilson), Tommie (Leon Williams) and Deena (Reena Lalbihari). Their attitude to the false reality surrounding them is surmised as Amanda scoffs: “Dubai’s success comes from the ingenious idea of shearing away the qualities that define it as Arab,” while gushing over an advert they’ve created to attract potential buyers.
Jamie’s aware of the hard conditions and ‘accidental’ deaths of workers on the building sites, but chooses to believe they’re leading better lives in Dubai than they lived back in South Asia. That is, until his old friend Clara (Miztli Rose Neville) pays a visit. She’s a journalist, formally in Dubai to write about shopping, but on a personal mission to expose the violation of the migrant workforce, many of whom, we’re told, have had their passport stolen, are working unfairly long hours, and living in squalor. The tension between the two reaches a climax as Clara shouts “Why don’t you care?” at Jamie, who screams back: “because I want to be rich!”.
At the opposite end of the financial scale is Amar (Adi Chugh), a migrant worker who we first meet as he wistfully stares out from the 88th floor of an unfinished skyscraper, describing his surroundings to his daughter back in India. There’s one similarity likening Amar’s dream to Jamie’s: they’ve both come to this new, shimmering city to improve their situation financially and materially. Amar talks with wonder of skyscrapers so tall the lights replace the stars in the sky, and cafés serving over 200 flavours of ice cream, but eliminates any details of the ‘accommodation village’ he lives in, that stinks of faeces and has no electricity. Tragically, as the plot develops we learn that Amar aspires to be moved into a camp that he and the other workers have been told about, with hot showers, a cricket ground and camomile tea. This camp, of course, does not exist.
Dubailand is performed with Anthony Lamble’s set design, in place for the Finborough’s main show Run The Beast Down. The design is minimalistic, with an iron-looking slab for the stage and metallic poles spearing from it into the sky, illuminated like lightsabers. Director Georgie Staight’s decision to let our imaginations do the work against this backdrop, rather than attempting to recreate the extravagant luxury of Dubai in the relatively small staging space, is an intelligent one.
Nasr’s writing – her script, her plot and her characters – are vividly real and believable. Stuart-Wilson’s Amanda could have been plucked straight out of Lord Sugar’s boardroom with her fierce, cut-throat attitude to business. And if you’ve ever spent time in the bars or pubs around Canary Wharf you’re likely to have overheard the arrogant waffle of ‘city boys’ like Jamie and Tommie. Banks and Williams play their unlikable roles so authentically it’s hard to believe they haven’t walked straight out of a sales pitch and onto the stage. Neville is every bit the conscientious, left-wing millennial as Clara and we’re rooting for her to uncover what she learns. Chugh is hugely lovable as the passionate and imaginative Amar. However one plot fragment that throws up a discrepancy is his final, monumental decision; would Amar really do this after everything we’ve seen him strive for? Either way, Dubailand remains compelling and urgent.
Dubailand is on until 21st February 2017 at the Finborough Theatre. Click here for more details.