Reviews, Stage, Theatre

Disgraced review (Wharf 1 Theatre, Sydney)

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Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and is such hot property in theatrical circles around the world that both Sydney Theatre Company and Melbourne Theatre Company have programmed productions for their 2016 seasons. The play, which sees two couples sharing their observations and attitudes towards religion (specifically Islam) at an explosive New York dinner party, has won award after award and rave review after rave review.

Why wouldn’t theatre companies get excited about it? It tackles some hot button issues which very few writers are willing to touch. It just does so in a very familiar setting with a very familiar structure, sure to put most audiences at ease.

Amir (Sachin Joab) is a successful New York lawyer who has long since erased many traces of his Pakistani Muslim background. But he’s married Emily (Sophie Ross), a contemporary artist working with traditional Islamic forms and techniques, and finds himself involved in a controversial case, which puts his relationship with Islam under the spotlight.

Emily’s career starts to take off when Isaac (Glenn Hazeldine), a Jewish art dealer, takes an interest in her work. Isaac and his wife Jory (Paula Arundell), who works alongside Amir at the firm, join Amir and Emily for a celebratory dinner. But things take a dark turn when the discussion turns to religion and politics — two subjects we’re always told not to discuss at dinner parties, even if they do provide strong dramatic fodder.

The arguments contained in the play are intriguing if not particularly novel. But to my mind, this is a pretty unsuccessful piece of drama: it’s true that most of the characters are rounded enough to not be mere vessels for argument, but the action of the play, and the way those relationships develop, is cliched and dramatically unsatisfying. If you take out the provocative politics, this really is just another upper-middle class dinner party play.

If it does one thing successfully, it is exploring the position of Muslims in contemporary American society, which isn’t too dissimilar to the position of Muslims in contemporary Australian society. It captures that kind of conditional acceptance a Muslim person usually receives when they break into a particular Western community.

But there are some political statements or actions in it that seem a little incongruous: the notion that Western societies don’t like lapsed Muslims any more than they like devoted Muslims seems unlikely, and the play actually demonstrates that fallacy. And although the horrid act which Amir eventually commits is presumably meant to be a response to the prejudice he faces, the dramatic groundwork for that choice is never laid, and it ultimately becomes the same violent act we’ve seen on stage plenty of times with no great purpose.

The performances are all strong if not absolutely outstanding. Sachin Joab makes a memorable impression in his STC debut, capturing the deep frustration of Amir and his difficult identity crisis. Sophie Ross is excellent as Emily, forced to basically bear witness to the gradual collapse of her marriage.

Paula Arundell is as powerful and watchable as always, even if she doesn’t quite find the tension between her character’s “ghetto” roots and current social position (although that’s probably more the fault of the writing). Glenn Hazeldine plays every bit of subtext for all it’s worth while Shiv Palekar also turns in a promising company debut.

Director Sarah Goodes has found a sense of the underlying conflicts in the early scenes and allows it to spill over beautifully as the play progresses. But her ceremonial transitions between the scenes are oddly jarring and Elizabeth Gadsby’s set design just leaves you pondering the bizarre and confusing floor plan of this sophisticated but sparsely decorated New York apartment.

We desperately need plays that grapple with big ideas; plays that fearlessly interrogate what’s at the core of our prejudices and how we structure our communities accordingly. Disgraced does that successfully (for the most part) but it doesn’t have the dramatic force necessary to make that interrogation hit home in any meaningful way.

[box]Disgraced is at the Wharf 1 Theatre until June 4. Featured image by Prudence Upton[/box]

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