First draft - written for CultureWars.org.uk
For a while at the start of Kebab you think you know exactly what you’re getting. As we meet Mădălina and Bogdan on their flight from Romania to Dublin, as Mădălina gushes gauchely about her boyfriend Voicu, as Bogdan plays the diffident student, we have a pretty good handle on the situation. As the next scene opens, a month later, with Voicu and Mădălina facing up to money worries - Voicu revealing that he has sorted out a whole new job for Mădălina - we are right back in 1996 in a kind of Romanian immigrant Shopping and Fucking. Plus ça change. Perhaps Mark Ravenhill unwittingly created a blueprint for all subsequent underclass dramas and Kebab is acknowledging that debt while pointing up the differences in the make-up of today’s newly emergent underclass of Eastern European immigrants.
There’s a change of lights - and suddenly we’re out of the bedsit squalor and into a red-neon lit interior monologue. Mădălina is comparing Romanian prostitutes to Romanian gymnasts. She’s the Nadia Comaneci of sex work.
But wait. Now that Mădălina is turning tricks in Dublin’s red light district, who’s this in the car with her? It’s Bogdan off the plane. He’s in a bad way. His course in Visual Arts at the University isn’t going so well because he feels alienated, lost and blocked. So the two form a kind of co-dependency. But more than that, he’s filming her. Filming her talking about her life as a sex worker in Dublin. Well, as long as Voicu doesn’t find out... Oh dear. Voicu’s come back. He’s found Bogdan filming Mădălina in her skimpy sex worker’s clothes. But what’s this? He doesn’t seem to mind? He’s got a business proposition for Bogdan? He wants them to start making films for the internet. Of Mădălina. So far, so modern. Here we are trotting through a veritable checklist of contemporary anxieties at quite a rate.
But the dynamic has changed. Little by little we’re being moved away from the social-realist mode to something much more domestic. Pinteresque, almost. Gradually, as Bogdan moves in with Voicu and Mădălina the three work up into a situation resembling a queasy cross between Entertaining Mr Sloane and The Servant. All the while we’re wondering who really wields the power. Allegiances shift: who does Mădălina really love? Do either of the men actually care about her? From here on in the interior monologues start cropping up with greater frequency. And they are getting increasingly sixth-form. They’ve started deploying that irritating ersatz Angela Carter “I am Little Red Riding Hood” level of fairy-tale-as-sexual-signifier trope that was so popular in the Eighties. And then cutting back to the increasingly laboured sub-Pinter three-way. Eventually the dual dei ex machina of pregnancy and murder intervene and the play is finally allowed to keel over and die.
It is difficult to fully assess Gianina Căbunariu’s play (originally bearing the far better title mady-baby.edu) since neither Philip Osment’s prosaic translation nor Orla O’Loughlin’s leaden direction do it any favours. As an idea, it has some potential, but precious little of it is realised here. It would, I suppose, be traditional to round-off with some sort of kebab-related punnery (blah, blah skewered; only enjoyable if drunk; etc.), but the title is as glancingly irrelevant as the rest of this thin, undercooked piece.