Disgraced is representative in many respects of “the well-made play”, a piece of decidedly linear, non-experimental, single-location, essentially naturalistic and conventionally structured small-cast drama of the type which, for a century or so, has come to be deemed highly unfashionable by some. Yet in the right hands such a format makes for extremely compelling drama, such as this Pulitzer Prize-winning example. If we can refrain from any such rarified desire to reflexively sneer at the mainstream style and themes of the play, what we have here is a strong story layered with simmering tension and engrossing character drama, presented with generally taut direction of some highly impressive acting.
One of the dilemmas in reviewing a play such as this, is that it is to a certain extent extremely plot-driven, in terms of the turns the characters take. Too much in the way of detailed discussion of the narrative’s events is likely to spoil the dramatic impact of the story, and indeed, even the Sydney Theatre Company’s own advertising blurb and content advisory warning sign in the lobby led me to have quite a different set of expectations for how the implied scenario would unfold.
In essence, it is play about prejudices, both unexamined and overwrought, the assimilation and persistence of culture, the (in)escapable nature of heritage and upbringing, with the often disastrous intersections of the personal and political when such issues come to the boil. All of which is perhaps a coy way of saying that it is, in large part, a play about the treatment and experience of Islam in modern America.
Amir Kapoor is a high-powered New York lawyer who, on the surface, seems to be living out his own American Dream – married, wealthy, respected, assimilated. However, although considering himself an apostate, and one privately fairly hostile to the Islamic tradition at that, Amir is from a Muslim Indian family… or perhaps Pakistani, as becomes but one of the many disputed facts about his past when his life starts to be put under the microscope. And very unwelcomely so, because despite all his success, Amir knows that it can be a fine line between trust and suspicion even for American-born citizens with his background, amid the Islamophobic sociopolitical climate of the ongoing “war on terror”. Yet as much as Amir renounces the creed he was raised in, his life conspires to remind the world of his seemingly inextricable links.
On the one hand his blonde American wife Emily is an artist who, somewhat to his chagrin, is starting to make a name for herself by utilising and championing traditional Islamic geometric forms in her own paintings, and has a much more positive view of this cultural heritage than Amir does himself. Complicating matters further is his devoutly Muslim nephew Abe who, despite having changed his name from Hussein, is flirting with the fringes of potentially radicalised Islam. Both he and Emily are pressuring Amir to offer his expert legal support to an imam who has been imprisoned – they believe falsely – on suspicion of funding terrorism. Amir has legitimate fears that any such association, however tangential, could be hazardous to his career, as he believes himself on track to be named a partner at the old, largely Jewish-run law firm for which he works.
Things go from bad to worse, however, when Amir has Jory, one of his co-workers, over for dinner, along with her husband Isaac, who just so happens to be an important curator, announcing that he will be exhibiting and thus advancing Emily’s art career. As the drinks flow and conversation turns inevitably to religion and politics, the screw begins to turn and shocking admissions lead to damaging secrets being laid bare around the dinner table.
Sarah Goodes’ direction of this production is strong on the whole, apart from one brief instance of some especially shoddy choreography, and a perhaps overly-indulgent choice to allow the actors to enact unnecessarily languid scene-changes against stirring music, presumably to both indicate the passage of time and invite the audience to contemplate the dramatic developments at each juncture. When it comes to showcasing the performers, however, this production is in fine form, and does excellent justice to Ayad Akhtar’s delicately-balanced script. Tension mounts expertly, awkward exchanges are permitted to breathe, early moments of humour feel unforced, and later emotional desolation stings with its painful credibility. What passes between the actors non-verbally in this production is often as captivating as dialogue actually uttered. Some of the exchanges between Amir and Emily as they struggle and fail to find the words to express the painful complexity of their overwhelming emotions is palpably raw, and a masterclass in nuanced stage naturalism.
The entire cast is very strong, with Shiv Palekar making a good showing in the smaller role of nephew Abe, and stage stalwarts Paula Arundell and Glenn Hazeldine doing their usual excellent work, navigating their characters’ transitions from awkward humour to white-knuckled pathos. Sophie Ross gives a very fine performance as Emily, and certainly reaches the highest peaks of demonstrative emotion, which she exudes with aplomb.
Unquestionably though, despite being a largely ensemble piece, the lynchpin of this production is the superb performance by Sachin Joab as Amir. At turns sympathetic, horrifying, inscrutable and yet with his heart on his sleeve, Joab brings this deeply conflicted character brilliantly to life, frequently as much with what is unsaid – be it with a glance, a gesture, or a bitten back line of unarticulated regret. Constantly making the audience reassess their impression of him, his beliefs, his choices, his actions, it is a towering performance of a man who thought he had it all and finds his life unravelling faster than he can understand or even begin to control, and bringing his own worst impulses to light in the process.
Those looking for a jolly night out at the theatre or to be challenged by a radical new expression of theatrical form or outrageous take on this disquieting subject matter may not find Disgraced readily appealing, but for anyone seeking a strong, powerfully acted character drama with provoking themes, this fine production comes strongly recommended.
Sydney Theatre Company presents
by Ayad Akhtar
Director Sarah Goodes
Venue: Wharf 1 Theatre, The Wharf, Pier 4/5 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay
Dates: 16 April – 4 June 2016
Tickets: from $64
Bookings: 02 9250 1777 | www.sydneytheatre.com.au
Merrigong Theatre Company, IMB Theatre, IPAC
8 – 11 June
merrigong.com.au | 02 4224 5999
Riverside Theatres, Paramatta
16 - 18 June
riversideparamatta.com.au | 02 8839 3399
Canberra Theatre Centre, The Playhouse
canberratheatrecentre.com.au | 02 6275 2700