Since 2003, more than 170,000 pieces have disappeared from the National Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad. The items—including such rarities as the sacred vase of Warka—have been lost, destroyed, or sold. Few of these works have landed in the puzzled hands of English schoolgirls, though that’s the scene that begins Mike Bartlett’s Artefacts. On a rainy afternoon, 16-year-old Kelly (the superb Lizzy Watts) meets Ibrahim (Peter Polycarpou), her Iraqi father, who abandoned the family before her birth. After an awkward introduction, he presents Kelly with a priceless vase. Having spirited it out of Iraq, he hopes his daughter will safeguard it: “It is wisdom, it is beauty,” he says. Kelly remains visibly unimpressed.
Artefacts bears similarities to two other recent shows in the Brits Off-Broadway series. Like Torben Betts’s The Unconquered, it has a mouthy young miss at its center; like David Greig’s Damascus, it concerns miscommunication between cultures. Happily, it lacks the inanity of the former and the aimlessness of the latter. Bracingly paced and plotted, the play doesn’t sacrifice character to pontification. Bartlett writes cracking monologues (and decent dialogue, too) in a variety of voices—from Kelly’s sharp, prolix speeches to her father’s eloquent, reserved tones to her mother’s wistful discourse. True, Bartlett evokes some fairly unlikely situations (kidnapping, an attempted art heist), but he grounds them in recognizable language and emotion. A young playwright with a poised style and a compassionate mien—now that’s a treasure.