The third season for The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi culminates in a strong, thought-provoking production of Heather Raffo’s widely acclaimed Noura.
The Washington Post review of the play summarised it as “a restless, unpredictable riff on Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and modern Iraq”, saying “Joanna Settle’s grand, simple staging … and Raffo’s impassioned central performance command attention”.
Noura has been described (not least by us) as a reimagining of Ibsen’s play to examine A Doll’s House from a Middle Eastern perspective. But that’s too glib a summary. Heather Raffo herself has said “Noura is a play about awakening and the search for sacrament”; one reviewer called it “a glimpse into the psyche of a woman caught between two identities — that of Iraqi refugee and successful American immigrant”; Shakespeare Theatre Company, the company responsible for this production, asks “what does ‘home’ mean and what will we do to protect it?” with the implication that the play will offer some suggestions.
At its most obvious, it’s about the immigrant experience in America. Noura and her husband Tareq have been in New York for some years with a nice apartment and – financially, at least – a nice life. On the surface they are integrated into the American dream, the pre-Trump inclusivity that offers a new identity to those who have had to leave their homelands. Tareq wants to rename himself Tim and Noura as Nora; their son Yazen will become Alex, and they will all be Americans.
But things are rarely so uncomplicated: we all carry the past with us, and the past comes calling in the form of Maryam, a young refugee from Mosul, the original hometown of Noura and Tareq.
“Nora and Noura are wives and mothers trying to reach through an identity crisis to stand with some strength inside a life that feels right to them …”
And then Noura becomes a play about the awakening of female identity. Noura’s loneliness and her sense of a wasted life (back in Mosul she was an architect, in America she’s a housewife) is what provide the link to Ibsen. The director Joanna Settle told us that both Nora from A Doll’s House and Noura in New York “are wives and mothers trying to reach through an identity crisis to stand with some strength inside a life that feels right to them”.
But there again, we should look for too much more than that: as that Washington Post review put it, Noura is “barely Ibsen”. And certainly A Doll’s House is not one of director Joanna Settle’s favourite plays. “It’s been explained to me by many people that it is brilliant, and I am sure they are right. But I find it so distinctly masculine in its obsession with the ‘feminine’ mysteries and motivations that in the end I find it simple. The finality of the door slam seems immature to me. It’s very conscious that my production of Heather’s play doesn’t have a door in the set.
“Decisions about where to live and in proximity to what and who with are ongoing. As a woman with a career and a family, and a tragically dire need for a vacation, the conversations which Ibsen seem to begin and end with finality in his play, I discover in the corners of my day every day across many years …”
So Noura can be seen as having multiple themes: the experience of middle-class immigrants, the politics of Iraq, motherhood and family, conservatism versus change, loss of the sense of place … “We are none of us simple,” says Joanna Settle. “Noura begins on Christmas Eve and ends on Christmas Day. Christian, Muslim, Hindu, agnostic – we all know what these holidays mean and how loaded up they can become with plans and hopes among people who care about each other. Holidays provide us with an opportunity to perform the rituals of that caring to show it, to prove it, to affirm our love for one another. I suppose ‘Noura’ is really about love.”
And does Noura have any particular resonance in the UAE? Are the themes relevant to the Emirates here and now?
“Noura is an immigrant story. It seems quite beautiful to share it with a country that’s opened its borders to host so many nationalities. It’s also wonderful to bring a fundamentally feminist narrative to the country that has appointed so many women as ministers and cabinet members. Like many artists making the UAE their home [Settle is Associate Arts Professor of Theater at NYUAD] I’m honoured to contribute to the national conversation of what culture might become among us all.”
She has worked with Heather Raffo for some time. “Heather and I collaborated on her first and now her second play, and she has also performed in work I have directed. We have shared conversation about art, life and love across 13 years. I think we would both say that our creative relationship has helped shape us as artists.”
“I became aware of myself as an Iraqi – had a sense of myself as ‘the other’ – for the first time during the Gulf War …”
That first play was Nine Parts of Desire (with Heather Raffo as writer and solo performer). An international hit ever since it premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 2003, the play details the lives of nine Iraqi women; Raffo characteristically uses theatre as a means of bridge-building between the Eastern and Western cultures that she counts as her heritage – Iraqi father, American mother, born in the United States, grew up in Michigan.
“I’m an American, but I became aware of myself as an Iraqi – had a sense of myself as ‘the other’ – for the first time during the Gulf War,” Raffo recalled some years ago. “I realised from that point on that my cousins in Iraq – family whom I loved – would be viewed by many Americans as dark and dirty. I also realised that the only difference between my cousins and myself was the accident of where we were born.”
Raffo’s acting credits include the feature film Vino Veritas, dir Sarah Knight (2014); numerous off Broadway productions; and several Shakespeare tours. Said John Lahr in The New Yorker: “As a performer, Raffo is deft and vivacious; her writing, like her playing, is marked by wit and by a scrupulous attention to the details of character.”
Noura plays in The Red Theater at The Arts Center on 10, 11 and 12 May at 8pm on the Thursday and Friday, 3pm on the Saturday. The 10 May performance is sold out, but there may be returns; and the shows on 11 and 12 May still had tickets when we checked. Tickets are free; prebook here.