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The Tribe review (Belvoir, Surry Hills backyards)

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Adapted from Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s novella of the same name, The Tribe is a gorgeous and evocative monologue performed with a solo cello, telling the stories of an Arab-Australian family living in Sydney’s western suburbs. And, rather appropriately, it’s performed in a backyard.

We see the family through the eyes of a young boy, Bani Adam, played by Hazem Shammas. Bani is part of a small group of Shiite Muslims — the eponymous “Tribe” — living in Lakemba. Most of the narrative centres around the death of Bani’s beloved golden-skinned grandmother, his Tayta, and the impact that has upon the family.

Shammas is an extraordinary story-teller, and the marriage of his performance and the text is the work’s great strength. When Bani describes the gravy-filled, chunky deliciousness of the meat pies from his primary school, you can basically hear the audience salivating. When he describes the wild dancing of all his relatives at a bustling wedding, you almost want to join in.

Shammas’ delivery, as well as Janice Muller’s direction, is perfectly calibrated for this very intimate space. He uses a microphone — presumably because the acoustics of a backyard are somewhat unpredictable — but there’s nothing standing between us and him, save for a long thin footlight running along the ground.

He’s joined by cellist Oonagh Sherrard, who has composed an Arabic-influenced soundtrack which matches the rhythms of Bani’s stories perfectly.

I’m not sure how many of the anecdotes written by Ahmad are autobiographical, but it’s easy to imagine all of this actually happened. There’s an emotional specificity which makes this entire monologue feel like somebody’s cherished memories, and sharing them in a backyard is a very intimate act.

Site specific theatre mightn’t be a new thing, but it’s unusual for larger companies like Belvoir. The work premiered at last year’s Sydney Festival in a backyard in Sydney’s western suburbs, and it will make its way around various Surry Hills backyards over the next few weeks. The audience is invited to pull up a picnic rug, a milk crate or a very lo-fi stool to hear Bani’s story.

So why the backyards? The piece really could be performed anywhere and doesn’t specifically reference its environment. But why not take it out of the regular theatre spaces and into a place that we understand as an intimate, personal meeting space for families? There’s something magical about a balmy summers evening in a backyard — the people at Belvoir were even smart enough to provide mosquito repellent!

In Ahmad’s program note, he describes the novel as his “attempt to counteract the limited and simplistic representation that the Arab-Australian Muslim communities of Western Sydney have received to date, and to offer a broader, more intimate understanding.”

This is certainly a work that does that, but it never feels quite so political in its execution. At its core, these stories are about family, history and love.

Definitely worth a visit for a theatrical experience that’s moving and just a little bit left-of-centre.

The Tribe is being performed in Surry Hills backyards until February 7. It’s an Urban Theatre Projects production, presented by Belvoir. Photo by Catherine Cranston

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