Interview: Carmen Nasr, Georgie Staight and Caley Powell, Dubailand

Carmen Nasr’s Dubailand won her a 2017 Channel 4 Playwrights’ Scheme Playwright in Residence Bursary at the Finborough Theatre, supported by The Peggy Ramsay Foundation. Opening on 5th February, this urgent new play explores the plights of Dubai’s migrant labour force as the life of an Indian migrant labourer becomes fatefully intertwined with that of a British expat with his eye on the big time.

“I grew up in Lebanon, where there’s a similar issue with the violation of human rights of migrant workers explored in Dubailand,” explains Carmen. “In Lebanon, this is especially prominent with Ethiopian, Sri Lankan and Filipino women who come over to work as housemaids in the homes of middle class families. Many of these women have their passports held by their employers, as a way to ensure they complete their employment contracts, as the family will have paid a large fee to a recruitment agency to process their visa and pay for flights. So they are essentially trapped, and have no legal rights. They are also paid a pittance, and many work seven days a week, and don’t ever get a proper break during the day, or annual leave. While my family never hired a maid, many of my school friends’ families did, and I witnessed this mistreatment on many occasions, so it’s something I’ve been aware of, on a very personal level, for years and have felt very strongly about.

“The difference in Dubai and the UAE in general, is that the same thing is happening, but on a massive scale, with many British and American companies turning a blind eye. This legal system of ‘sponsorship’ or Kafala as it’s called in Arabic, is what allows all this to happen. Workers are forced to complete their contracts, sometimes up to four years long, no matter what working conditions they are met with on arrival. Also, because they are in financial debt to their companies, who will have covered the cost of their flights and visa paperwork, their passports are confiscated until they have paid off their debts, which takes them much longer than planned or expected as they are usually paid much less than they were originally promised. They’re essentially trapped. This is a system used widely across the Middle East, and this is the same system used across the UAE to manage thousands and thousands of workers who come over from mainly India and Pakistan, to escape the poverty of their home countries.

“One day, I got an image in my head of a construction worker from India, standing alone on the top of a huge skyscraper in Dubai, still under construction, at night,  surrounded by a sky full of stars, and the bright lights of the Dubai skyline in the background, and I wondered what he would have to say. That was the catalyst for the actual writing of the play. It’s a story that says something about the globalised world we live in today, about the world order that is being established and that we are actively taking part in, and forces us to take a step away from our own individual perspectives and examine it.”

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The production is being brought to the Finborough by a team including director Georgie Staight and producer Caley Powell. “Dubailand attacks an important ethical issue which doesn’t seem to be being addressed in the way it should be. The reaction we’ve had from so many people of ‘I had no idea this exploitation was happening’ is incredibly telling in itself,” says Georgie, who’s co-artistic director of Flux Theatre, a company dedicated to bringing socially engaging theatre to new audiences. “The success of the script lies in the way Carmen tackles an important ethical issue with humanity, truth and humour. Our loyalties to certain characters constantly shift, leaving the audience to make certain choices.

“I hope audiences will take away an awareness of an issue they may not have tapped into. A reflection on their own lives in turn. And hopefully an enjoyable 90 minutes of new writing and a new writer to keep their eye on.”

Caley adds, “I was instantly intrigued by this play. Reading the script I learnt so much about a side of Dubai I didn’t really know that much about, the migrant labour force and the treatment of the construction workers. What Carmen does so well is juxtapose the lives of these Indian construction workers with a team of British expats, particularly Jamie, who’s new to the country and is enjoying being introduced to the glamorous life of Dubai. The play shows that Dubai is sold as a better life to everyone, whether it’s an Indian construction worker given the opportunity to make money to send to their families back home, or British expats that move to Dubai to live in lavish apartments, earn lots of money and enjoy the glamorous lifestyle – but this play exposes the darker side of the country and is a shocking, heart breaking piece of theatre that will hopefully move you.”

Since its first staged reading in 2015, the play’s had quite a thorough re-write, and been through several drafts. Carmen explains, “While the form and shape of the play has remained essentially quite stable throughout the re-writing process, the voice and journey of Amar, a construction worker from India, has become more nuanced and layered with each draft. Having been unable to access and speak to construction workers on my research trip to Dubai, Amar’s voice took a lot of sensitivity and exploration to fictionalise and construct.”

Caley’s particularly excited about working with a female-led team. “As a producer I’m always actively seeking female led projects. I’m part of the organisation The League Of Professional Theatre Women that seeks to promote women in the arts; although progress has been happening with women in theatre I want in any way that I can to help women bring their projects to the stage and help them get their stories and ideas heard. I enjoy working with a group of women to create projects, for example on Dubailand we have a female director, writer, producer, stage manager, designer and our cast is a 50/50 split between male and female roles – but plays like this are still unfortunately a rarity in the industry.

“We want everyone to feel as though they have contributed to creating this project. We have an amazing team and it’s been a pleasure watching them all work and create the piece together. I hope people will come to see the play and it will lead to more work for everyone on board!”

Carmen agrees: “As a writer, collaborating with a group of theatre practitioners on a play, is all about achieving a production in which a little bit of everyone’s experience and perspective and personality is gently woven into the final production, which is what makes it feel alive. The goal I guess is to produce something that is a result of a huge group conversation, rather than purely the vision of one member of the team. This is what Georgie, as the director, is crafting so beautifully.

“I hope that the audience will go away from the theatre, and think about the play again the next day, or week, or month. Even if it’s just on one occasion.”

Tickets are selling fast – book now for the world premiere of Dubailand at the Finborough Theatre on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays, from 5th to 21st February.

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