Very rarely, there comes a play that gets at the heart of a particular social moment, and grabs that moment to shake out all the things we tend to turn away from in the hopes we don’t have to recognise them for what they are.
For me, Ayad Aktar’s Disgraced is that play.
Disgraced, winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, tackles the tension around contemporary relationships with social spaces and faith in a world that is so wrapped up in disavowing religious belief systems – specifically Islam. The central figure of Amir is very vocal about his problems with the faith he was raised in, and the culture surrounding that faith, but the play does something very unique, and seemingly very natural in not blaming the faith for Amir’s self-loathing, but Amir himself. It is clear to audiences from the outset that Islam is not the villain of this play, nor is America or capitalism or any of the usual suspects we are used to blaming. Instead, the villain here is warped self-perception and self-destruction. Somehow, this play does that nameless thing in tackling head on what the post-9/11 landscape of American mentality looks like and how it impacts the personal and enclosed spaces of the home and the relationships within it.
Sydney Theatre Company’s current production of Disgraced, the first time this play has been staged in Australia, doesn’t disappoint. I was lucky enough to get tickets for the first preview showing and it was a masterpiece of modern theatre performance. The staging was brilliantly designed, the set facing equally across all sides, so that the action of the play could be regarded with equal access no matter the direction of movement across the stage. We can see the vague silhouette of the bedroom, the balcony facing out onto New York, the slight glimpses into the outside world in the hallway leading to the apartment and the escape of the kitchen space, the place that Emily (Amir’s wife) often escapes to in order to re-balance the apartment’s emotional space. There are hints of an outside, but we feel just as closed in, just as claustrophobic, as the characters themselves. There are no places to hide from the bristling and uncomfortable discussions taking place in front of us.
Having recently read the play for a university course, I went into this production with high expectations for how it would tackle the central relationships of this play. STC’s production, much like the play, doesn’t try to blame anyone for the problematics played out on the stage. Instead, the movement and the interludes that take place between scenes allow a lull, a brief silence, in which the audience can reflect on the vastness and complexities of the action they have just witnessed. These are real people, we all know these terrible people and their morally ambiguous behaviours. But there is something about voicing them so openly in the theatre space, addressing topics that are normally hidden beneath the veneer of respectable social interaction, that makes these people startlingly repulsive and endearing all at once. You want to hate these people, but you can’t. Because somewhere on that stage, if only for a line or two, is you.
I applaud the decision of the creative team to keep the play situated in the imagined space of New York City, keeping it in its original American context. All the actors maintained authentic American accents and characteristics throughout the performance, and yet, there was still a sinister feeling that lingered in the background of the production, a feeling that this wasn’t just New York or even America anymore. The accents never slipped, but the audience’s mind often did slip into the all-too familiar feeling of racism, religious discrimination and self-loathing that is so prevalent in Australia at the moment. The story on stage could easily have been translated into an Australian context, but the deliberate choice to keep it American – a seemingly neutral space for audiences given the current state of American domination of entertainment spaces – makes it seem both alien and familiar all at once. We are caught between these worlds in a way that we really needed to in order for us to remember that these aren’t just characters on a stage, these are necessary reminders of the state of socio-political spheres in Western spaces at the moment, and the resounding impact that these spheres are having on the personal and internal spaces of both the racialised and the non-racialised.
Some slight issues I had with the show. The one thing I wished had been more cleverly or at the very least more sensitively addressed was the racialisation of Jory in the show. She is imagined in the play script and even in the dialogue as a woman of African American descent. However, there was something about the casting of Paula Arundell in this role that left the audience imagining her as more racially ambiguous – a bad habit in both theatre and film that keeps rearing its head. This may be a probably only I seem to have, and don’t get me wrong, Arundell absolutely nails the role, but I wonder if the casting of a seemingly racially ambiguous actor in this role was deliberate or not, and how this affects the character dynamic on stage. In a play that considers racialisation and cultural assumptions as this play does, it seems nearly inevitable that the casting of any and all people of colour onstage will be addressed, and potentially the casting of certain roles may become points of contention for different audiences. I am interested to see how other people discuss the casting of certain roles in this play.
Another complaint, though minuscule, is the absence of Emily’s ventures into Islamic art onstage. Her work is always mentioned, and the idea of a white non-Muslim woman experimenting with the Islamic tradition and Islamic artistic forms interests me greatly. However, the physical absence of this work onstage disappointed me, as I think it could have been an interesting point for the company to act around, to examine their reactionary behaviours, and without the audience being left to imagine the work (which leaves the potential for the audience, who likely have a small understanding of Islamic artistic traditions to imagine little more than a blank space on stage). It is understandable however, that this may have been a deliberate choice to make the audience examine their relationships to different cultural and religious art practices. Even so, I wish I could have seen the art myself.
All in all, this was a brilliant performance, and I cannot express how brilliantly the cast embodied this play and its intent. I was incredibly impressed with all the actors on stage, and cannot fault any of their acting – it was all rather masterful and incredibly compelling. A special mention for the lead actor Sachin Joab (who played Amir) who so convincingly portrayed the internal and often external battle with racial and religious expectations and self-loathing that drives this play.
If you have the chance to see this play, I highly recommend it. It is really something incredible and important, particularly given the current state of Australian cultural and religious politics, and ideas around relationships with the self, culture, religion and bigotry.
Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Disgraced runs from 16th April to the 20th of June. Tickets are available here, though they are selling out fast.
© Hayley New 2016