Left – Yalin Ozucelik. Photo – Daniel Boud
This very clever and deeply engaging show starts off by suggesting that what we are seeing is, in effect, a play-within-a-play, a slipshod piece of amateur community theatre being performed on a shoestring budget by refugees in a camp, about refugees in a camp. Although this justifies a lot of highly entertaining production design that relies on makeshift props and costumes, using such a framing device doesn’t especially seem to “pay off” on any terribly meaningful dramatic level. The would-be refugee actors playing refugee characters don’t appear to clearly delineate a distinction between play and player, never seemingly breaking character nor mining any potential drama that could emerge from the emotional toll of refugees telling stories so close to their own experiences.
Indeed, apart from a couple of occasions in which something “goes wrong” with one of the limited props, there is very little indication of any break between the internal diegesis of the refugee theatre performance and the internal narrative which the fictional actors are performing. One doesn’t necessarily need a Nakkiah Lui-level of reality-blurring self-insertion, nor conversely for it to descend into a “Noises Off” type of backstage farce. Yet by framing an essentially uninterrupted face-value refugee narrative as a production staged by refugees themselves, it seems a shame to reduce this idea to little more than metatheatrical window-dressing. It is a rare stumble in Eamon Flack’s otherwise very deft play, but fortunately one that is relatively easy to ignore as it proceeds.
Strictly speaking, this show is a collaborative creation between Flack and his cast of actors, loosely adapting the Stalin-suppressed 1928 Nikolai Erdman play The Suicide into a radically different and more politically topical context. The story concerns Sami, a married man who has lived for many years in a refugee camp. He has repeatedly failed to either get a successful visa interview to relocate in Canada or raise the money to get a boat to go to Germany (which, in a running joke, we are repeatedly and mistakenly informed is a landlocked country). While his wife manages to support the family through some modest form of employment, Sami cannot manage to contribute, and this fact, coupled with living with both her and his mother-in-law in the deprivation of the camp, has left him feeling emasculated and depressed. His womenfolk get the mistaken impression that this may have escalated to Sami feeling suicidal.
After some farcical hijinks, it is revealed that he has a farfetched plan to work his way out of their situation by learning to play the tuba, as a supposedly remunerative new livelihood. However, these plans are quickly dashed and Sami finds himself caught up in a whirlwind of bizarre activity. Word of the notion that he was going to commit suicide has spread through the camp like wildfire, and a succession of different parties get the idea into their heads that they could get political or personal mileage out of having Sami falsely claim, in a suicide note, that his choice to end his life so dramatically was in protest over the respective issues of their choosing.
Suddenly, the increasingly befuddled Sami finds himself in the eye of a storm of publicity in which he is being treated as a kind of presumptive celebrity. Or even a saint, for championing one cause or another… none of which he has exactly agreed to do yet. The irony, of course, is that despite his depression Sami originally never had a personal desire nor even any impulse to actually commit suicide. Yet the more this profoundly “unimportant” man, troubled by his own lack of self-worth, is courted and cajoled by all and sundry. As they exhort him to dedicate his own death to the glorious cause of social justice, love, women’s rights, education etc. The competing voices effectively start to gaslight Sami into believing that he really does intend to kill himself, and that this will finally give his life meaning and value.
This is black humour indeed, but delivered with an unusually light and zany, almost manic style that is hilarious in moments of high comedy and sharp satire. Yet given the subject matter, this approach seems all the more disturbing by contrast when the tone veers towards the really bleak laughs, such as a scene in which Sami drunkenly and nervously equivocates over whether to put the gun in his mouth or to his heart. Let alone the stark impact conveyed when hearing his genuinely impassioned pleas towards the conclusion to be allowed to live and value the humanity of his refugee existence.
The play explores a fascinating potpourri of ideas that extend well beyond the underlying topic of refugee camps, drawing interesting and sometimes troubling equivalences between the various parties who try to woo Sami to represent their causes. These range from the selfishly commercial to those of genuine conviction, the esoterically vague to the absurd, and the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing approach of politicisied humanitarianism disguising corporatism and personal gain.
A major target for satire in the play is the idea of “clicktivism”, the recent phenomenon of the promotion and even potential commodification of social media driven armchair-politics, which appeal to expressions of left-wing outrage yet engender no real progress. As one of Sami’s suicide-suitors says:
“When one person scrolling through their social media feed pauses and frowns, nothing much happens. But when millions of people pause and frown, that is how change is made!”
The concept of sudden and illusory fame is a rich and longstanding topic for satirists, which reached apexes of topicality in prior decades, such as with the former ballooning of Reality TV. Subsequently, the advent of bloggers, vloggers, podcasters and YouTube personalities engendered a new substrata of what it means to become an “internet famous” celebrity outside of mainstream media. While this play seems not to be especially preoccupied with how social media has now taken up the latest mantle of enabling ephemeral fame more generally, its stinging indictment of so-called clicktivism and “virtue signalling” are topical indeed.
This comes across especially in the way it presents the idea that a real person or issue can become aggressively shanghaied by those with other vested interests, and rebranded to suit even a diametrically opposite narrative. This can be in the hope of gaining fleeting attention or traction to a cause, organisation, or simply a political alignment. It very often happens so quickly and with such little vetting or fact-checking as to be almost willfully ignorant of potential contradictions that may emerge.
People can become international celebrities overnight, and then be aggressively turned on and then dropped like a hot coal in the light of inconvenient facts after less than 48 hours, thanks to this brave new world of the newsfeed in your pocket. Reducing people and their stories to internet memes is dangerous, and when it comes to handling the legitimate humanitarian outrage over major human rights issues such as refugee camps, the potential for perversion of a message or narrative via these processes is immense.
This is impressive work by Flack and company to render the concept and skeleton of this 1928 play, set in Communist Russia, in such a way as to feel so urgently alive and topical nine decades later, and in such a radically different context. It feels both like bleeding-edge modern satire and something potentially timeless, with more than a little Jesus imagery glommed onto Sami’s plight. This serves to reinforce the notion that whatever he himself actually thought or meant to say will become invested with contested meanings and squabbled over by competing interests after his death. Assuming, of course, that he actually goes through with the suicide that they are all treating as a fait accompli.
This is a fabulous ensemble cast with strong performances across the board, but special plaudits must go to Nancy Denis and the redoubtable Paula Arundell, who each play sharply contrasting and quite hilarious doubled roles. Also especially noteworthy is Charlie Garber, who is devastatingly funny as a transparently self-involved (and curiously near-eponymous) South African NGO aid worker who kicks off all the competing bids for Sami’s suicidal endorsement.
Anchoring the whole play with his central performance is one of our stage’s most accomplished actors of late, Yalin Ozucelik. He brings the title role to life with expert comic timing and a depth of humanity in such perfect balance that it is hard to imagine anyone else in the part. Although able to clown with the best of them, there are times in this production when the subtle nuances and unique charisma of Ozucelik’s performance are in risk of being drowned out by the energy and sheer volume of farcical chaos around him. Yet the conviction of his performance shines though, conveying heartbreak and hilarity in equal measure, setting the standard for the play as a whole.
Dynamic, moving, thought-provoking and side-splittingly hysterical, Sami in Paradise is one of the most engrossing new plays of the year.
Sami in Paradise
by Eamon Flack and Company
Director Eamon Flack
Venue: Belvoir Street Theatre | Belvoir St Surry Hills NSW
Dates: 1 – 29 Apr 2018
Tickets: $37 – $72