Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Apr 16 – Jun 4, 2016
Playwright: Ayad Akhtar
Director: Sarah Goodes
Cast: Paula Arundell, Glenn Hazeldine, Sachin Joab, Shiv Palekar, Sophie Ross
Images by Prudence Upton
We can all agree that everything is not quite coming up roses in the world today, with terrorists blowing up cities everywhere, and people waging war against one another, all in the name of race and religion. There is no denying that at the root of these catastrophes is hate. Hate that comes in a manner of guises and a range of justifications, but ultimately it all boils down to the simple truth that people are prejudiced and destructive. This is difficult to hear, because life is impossible without believing that humanity is good, so we embrace hope with a kind of blind naivety and evade the truth in order that we may get out of bed and be happy.
Ayad Akhtar demolishes those delusions with Disgraced, in which racist hate is served up plain as day. The characters are intelligent, successful and glamorous, tailor-made so that they are irresistible to bourgeois theatregoers, but their ugly sides emerge, increasingly aggressive over time, and we find ourselves in a state of violation, caused by this transgressive mix of seduction and repulsion. It is at the point where we become intimate with protagonist Amir and the people around him that we see their racism. We are unable to dismiss them because we had already submitted trust, having decided that they are good people, so our minds are in conflict, made to juggle the puzzle pieces that refuse to form an easy picture. In that process of confusion, we reach for a new depth of understanding about our nature and how hate resides in our beings, and how it manifests. In the face of Akhtar’s explicit honesty, we are presented a challenge of interpretation. We recognise the reality of the situation, but we have no convenient way of dealing with the information. The big mess of life is truer than the circumscribed narratives we use to arrange our thoughts, and in this play, that chaos is allowed to rear its ugly head, without a false sense of resolution to contain our anxieties. Bad things happen because there are people with hate in their hearts. Getting to know them is important, but not having anywhere to go thereafter is the conundrum.
It is a stunning and explosive script that drops bombs at regular intervals to unnerve, to disarm and most of all, to confront. It is a response to the undeniable horrors around us that involves no sugar-coating, and no rose-tinted glasses. It is a brutal piece of writing, made only more powerful by its ability to tell us the worst while it secures our unwavering attention. Sarah Goodes’ direction delivers that brutality with a blunt but measured force. Her ability to communicate details no matter how subtle, makes this staging an enriching and enlightening experience. She draws attention to nuances that are missed in our daily interaction with the subject matter, dismantling our habit of two-minute sound bites and 140 character tweets, in exchange for a more thorough study on the state of our world.
Amir is among the most important characters to have appeared in recent theatre history. His experience is ubiquitous but virtually never brought to light. There is shame, fear and danger associated with his story, so our impulses tell us to keep it buried, for we are afraid of the controversies he represents, and we worry about the people he offends. Performing the role is Sachin Joab, exhilarating, authentic and alluring in his depiction of the Pakistani-American caught in a moment of crisis. Joab brings extraordinary illumination to the tremendous complexity of his part, presenting a great deal of insight into a psychology that we all need to know. His work is emotional and vulnerable, but the actor is also able to convey an unmistakeable menace that is central to the play’s effectiveness. Joab overwhelms us with his talent and conviction, and leaves an indelible impression with his remarkable grace. Also exquisite is Elizabeth Gadsby’s set design, providing a backdrop of sophistication and class to a tale about social status and division. The configuration of spaces caters cleverly to all seats in the auditorium, offering excellent perspective and a beautiful vista from every angle.
This is a show full of tension, with its drama derived from issues of the day that are usually too unseemly to discuss in frankness. The action happens in an exclusive New York apartment, but we all have a stake in the subject matter. Peace will benefit everyone, but in its pursuance, we all seem to be losers. In the middle of a war, we are never sure if anything that we say or do will contribute to making things better, but regardless of context, art must always reveal the truth. We cannot mend what is broken without knowing its problems and although a bitter pill is hard to swallow, there is no escaping it. In Disgraced, characters have to drop their pretences and acknowledge the cold, hard fact that their world is in turmoil, but whether they can bring about improvements, or revert to their previous delusions, is not a question anybody has a definitive answer for.