STC’s play Disgraced lays bare a modern Muslim’s crisis of identity …a theatre review by Deb Meyer

May 10, 2016 by Deb Meyer
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Arab-American playwright Ayad Akhtar is the most produced playwright in America at the moment and for good reason.

As a secular Muslim, growing up in Milwaukee, Akhtar breathes life into the interior world of modern Muslim identity and complex East-West culture clashes.  These are heated, contemporary issues that include voices not often given prominence in the realm of theatre. Akhtar explores these with great intelligence, humour and sensitivity.

Sachin Joab and Sophie Ross in Sydney Theatre Company͛s Disgraced © Prudence Upton

Sachin Joab and Sophie Ross in Sydney Theatre Company͛s Disgraced © Prudence Upton

In Disgraced, his 2014 Pulitzer Prize winning play that took four years to write, Akhtar gives voice to Amir (Sachin Joab) – a South Asian-American corporate lawyer, working his way up in a Jewish law firm in Manhattan. Amir, a self-professed apostate, has long rejected his Islamic orthodox upbringing. He is married to artist, Emily (Sophie Ross), who espouses the sacred beauty and wisdom of Islamic art and tradition and encourages Amir to embrace the spiritual heritage of Islam, of which she is deeply passionate. She is far more supportive than Amir is of his nephew Abe (Shiv Palekar), a radical Islamist, formerly known as Hussein.

Despite Amir’s seemingly ideal life – happily married with a successful career and a beautiful home, Amir’s inner world is in torment.

When Emily convinces Amir to come to the legal aid of a local Imam on charges of financing terrorist-supporting groups, his professional and personal world begin to spiral out of control.  When they host an intimate dinner party with Amir’s colleague Jory (Paula Arundell), and her husband Isaac (Glenn Hazeldine) – the head curator at the Whitney Art Museum, where Emily hopes to exhibit her work, religious tensions erupt.

Sachin Joab, Paula Arundell, Sophie Ross and Glenn Hazeldine in Sydney Theatre Company͛s Disgraced © Prudence Upton

Sachin Joab, Paula Arundell, Sophie Ross and Glenn Hazeldine in Sydney Theatre Company͛s Disgraced © Prudence Upton

Akhtar pits a range of polar opposites against each other in his 5 main characters, which makes for highly entertaining theatre. A self-hating Muslim, his Muslim-loving wife, a secular Jew and his African-American wife sit round the dinner table eating pork, drinking wine and dissecting Islam and the Quran. As expected, this makes for some wonderful humour, which can’t possibly end well! This is the pivotal scene in the play. It is imbued with great intensity and honesty and reveals some very shocking admissions.

In this Australian premier of the play, STC Resident Director Sarah Goodes has created a very polished production and brought together a superb cast. Sachin Joab is outstanding as the multifaceted Amir, and an exciting actor to watch. Sophie Ross as Emily brings a strong performance, though her character is far more two-dimensional. Shiv Palekar is well cast as Abe, as is Paula Arundell, who packs a punch as Jory, the feisty lawyer and, as always, is wonderful and riveting to watch. Glenn Hazeldine is excellent as Isaac and believable as the secular, lobster-eating, Rumi-reading, Woody Allen-watching New York Jew, whose identity suddenly comes to the fore when Israel is being criticised. Thanks to voice coach Charmian Gradwell, all actors speak with flawless American accents.

The design team are similarly excellent with designer Elizabeth Gadsby creating a slick, contemporary, open plan and minimalist apartment for this Upper East Side dwelling. Lighting design by Damien Cooper is highly effective and an excellent score assembled by composer and sound designer Steve Francis. With high glass windows, often opened to hear the sirens down below and shafts of light beaming through, we are transported to the Big Apple, whose glossy façade hides a far more angst-ridden interior.

In the program, the playwright highlights the many commonalities he finds between Islam and Judaism and recalls the many Jewish writers whose works were ‘’hugely influential’’ in helping him find himself and his community. This is a clever play, dealing with humanity and the nature of prejudice and identity. In an age of increasing racial tension and prejudice, how poignant to hear a voice in the theatre that speaks of these complexities from the inside, with authenticity and sensitivity, no matter how hard it is to hear.

Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar

Duration 1hour 30 minutes (no interval)

Until 4th June, 2016

Produced by the Sydney Theatre Company

Performed at The Wharf, Pier 4 Hickson Road Walsh Bay 2000

Directed by Sarah Goodes

Cast: Sachin Joab, Paula Arundell, Sophie Ross, Glenn Hazeldine and Shiv Palekar

Box Office: 02 9250 1777.

Ticket price: from $69 to $116