East is East | NIDA

East is East | NIDAFor those unfamiliar with the play or the 1999 film adaptation, East is East is a funny, serious, warm and confronting look at the struggles of ethnic and religious assimilation into the West, in particular of the difficulties stemming from cross-cultural intermarriage and its consequences for the resulting generation.

Set in early 1970s England, the Khans are a mixed family who run a fish and chips shop, headed by George Khan, a Muslim Pakistani who emigrated forty years earlier, and his British wife of twenty-five years Ella, who is of Anglo-Catholic extraction. Ella has borne him seven children - sons Tariq, Nazir, Maneer, Abdul, Sajit, Saleem, and daughter Meenah - and it is with them that the culture clash has taken root. While it is not clear to what extent Ella has herself converted to Islam, she has generally supported (or at least not countered) George’s strict patriarchal insistence on raising the children to observe traditional Pakistani cultural mores. It is a task in which he has failed more than he realises.

As his elder children progressively rebel in their different ways against Islam and Pakistani values, family accord starts to deteriorate. While most of the children resist in covert ways such as eating bacon when their father is not around, some have become severely conflicted about their place in society, feeling they are “half-castes” that are neither English nor Pakistani, and have begun openly mocking their own culture and father in public.

By the play’s beginning the eldest son Nazir has fled the family and been disowned by George as a result. Now, with the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971 in the news while the rest of these rebellious children start coming to loggerheads with their father who expects total, blind obedience, Ella finds herself standing up for them for the first time and defying George, with violent consequences. A compelling character, George is however not a monster, he is a stubborn man who fervently believes he is doing what is best for his family by insisting on adherence to his strict Pakistani ways, that under Islam all are equal. His folly lies in the failure to recognise that this culturally isolationist approach is fundamentally incompatible with his clearly bi-cultural children who are surrounded by a very different and rapidly changing society. The more he denies them choice, the harder they resist.

Filled with enduring issues and memorable characters, Ayub Khan-Din’s East is East is an altogether engrossing and moving play, which this production, unfortunately, is not.

Surprisingly so, in fact. Having reviewed NIDA’s grad shows for the past few years now, including previous productions featuring these same students, this is the first one in memory that has significantly floundered. In spite of good production values, seemingly apt casting and most importantly a good choice of material, the result is underwhelming to say the least. Predominantly lacklustre performances with at times mumbled, almost inaudible dialogue and an overall feeling of ennui, the cast seemed by and large to be coasting through the play with little sense of a cohesive ensemble. The stakes never seemed as high for the characters as their words were telling us they should be, and the play’s flare-ups and climaxes felt empty, as they had not been earned through a build-up of believable dramatic tension.

It was a rather confounding experience, as I know full well from other shows that these are good actors. More than good – some of these graduating students are excellent, as their past work can attest. As to what then went wrong here one can only speculate. While it would seem probable that the guest director Kristine Landon-Smith is somehow responsible, this too is mystifying, as she actually directed (and even commissioned) the acclaimed UK premiere production in 1996. Whether the fault lies with the actors, director or some breakdown of communication or incompatibility of theatrical technique between the two parties, the disappointing result is undeniable -- a good play with a strong cast yielding a tepid, at times downright awkward final product.

This was perhaps most evident in the case of Anthony Taufa as the overbearing patriarch George. It is a role both unlikable and poignant, a challenging part that should be a gift for a performer of Taufa’s calibre, an actor who was hilarious in The Popular Mechanicals and electrifying in And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens. Yet here Taufa appears to be chafing against his casting - seemingly uncomfortable, as though unable to commit to the role with any of the passion or believability of which he is clearly capable.

The production does have a few saving graces, however. The set and costume designs by Michael Hankin and Aron Dosiak impeccably evoke the era and setting, and Lisa Gormley manages to raise her head above the eddying waters pulling down the majority of the cast, delivering the one truly strong, affecting performance as Ella, while Paige Gardiner, Sophia Roberts, Marko Jovanovic, and guest artist Monroe Reimers also have their moments. It is interesting, given recent events, to see a production in which most of the cast are playing roles that they do not naturalistically fit in either race or age, but such is often the case at drama school, and had the production succeeded in living up to the play’s dramatic potential this would have been of no consequence at all. As such it becomes just one more unconvincing element in this disappointing show.

East is East is a strong play which deserves much better treatment than the inexplicably listless rendition it has received here. One can only hope that being a final graduating production it does not hinder the launch of some very promising careers, and that all those involved take its shortcomings as one last learning experience before venturing forth from the school that has hithertofore served them so well.

NIDA 3rd Year Actors present
by Ayub Khan-Din

Director Kristine Landon-Smith

Venue: Parade Space | 215 Anzac Parade, Kensington
Dates/Times: 8-10, 13-17, 20 October @ 8.00pm
Matinee: 17 October @ 2pm
Tickets: Adult $25 | Concession $15 | Groups 10+ $15
Bookings: 1300 795 012 or www.ticketek.com.au
Visit: www.nida.edu.au

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