Aanisa Vylet: I have been watching you play Uday Hussein. He is quite a cruel man and you as a person have the demeanour of a teddy bear. How do you channel his cruelty?
Tyler De Nawi: When I am behind closed doors in my own space I experiment with how far I can take something. I can have quite a lot of fun with myself… (I know that sounds dirty) but I know how to entertain myself. When I am alone, I can actually push myself to those extremes, to those states of anger, distress. I can drop my mask of Mr Nice Guy and play. It comes from play, playing at home, really taking time to understand what the text is saying. The play is written so well. I just try to let the text breathe on stage.
What is your relationship to Iraq as an Arab Australian?
I grew up with Iraqis and Asyrians in Western Sydney. The word ‘Saddam’ was thrown around loosely at school. Some loved Saddam, some hated Saddam, some didn’t even know how to feel about it… After more research, I have started to see the Husseins as ordinary people. Even though people considered him to be crazy, Uday Hussein was a boy who grew up with a father who would kill his own friends if they betrayed him. His father was unfaithful to his mum and Uday loved his mum. He was product of his own environment. Uday used to own tigers. To me, if he was an animal, he would be a tiger – a predator in captivity.
What is your favourite thing about your Uday Hussein costume?
He is like an “Arab Hugh Hefner”. He wears a three-piece suit with gold buttons on it and a gold tie. It is something else. We are so lucky to have found it. I am still trying to get my hands on a ring, a gold pinky ring. I think that will be my favourite part.
Have you ever been to Iraq?
Never. I have been to Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Turkey… Wow, all the countries around Iraq but I never been there, no.
Do you feel targeted as an Arab?
I am proud to be Muslim. I am proud to be from an Arab background. We are complex just like every one else. We are messy. We are passionate. We are beautiful, just like everyone else. It is time to stop assuming you can label anyone. Just because I am Arab-Muslim does not mean you know me.
I believe art is the best way to help a society overcome these assumptions.
When I was a kid growing up, driving down the highway I saw big banners from world vision that showed an African child suffering. 20 years later, there are now Syrian kids on banners in the rubble that was once their city. How did we get to this? We haven’t even resolved what is happening in Africa. People from my own heritage have become a charity case. What is next?
Tyler De Nawi: In this play you are playing two characters – an Iraqi civilian whose home is being raided and a leper. I watch you embody these characters very well. To what extent do you go to embody a character?
Aanisa Vylet: I can inhabit distressed states of being very easily. I don’t know where it comes from. Perhaps it is in my blood, an ancestral pain. When I access those states I think about everyone who is currently suffering in Arab countries and the world right now. I channel anyone I know who is an outsider due to their health as the leper.
I also work in colours and through the physicality of that character. For the Iraqi woman, my feet are bare and I am trying to put on my scarf. As a person from an Islamic background, I understand the vulnerability and nakedness that she would feel when those parts of her body are bare in the presence of foreign military.
With the leper, my body is diagonal and made of sand. The leper is the color grey – the black moves inward, the white tries to reach out. The Iraqi woman is red – passionate and explosive.
If you were stranded in the middle of the desert as an outsider, decaying, what is the food that you would be wishing for?
My mother’s homemade vine leaves. Even though my mum hates cooking, her food is always made with love and makes me feel like I am at home. And Lebanese vine leaves with yoghurt and mint? That is the dish that describes my life. It takes forever to make but tastes so delicious you fight for the last mouthful.
What is your mission as an artist and why were you interested in telling this story?
My mission is to tell stories that are difficult to tell, stories that express the voices of people who are silenced who cannot tell their stories themselves. I aim to tell provocative and engaging stories that don’t exist yet.
And as for Bengal, when I first read the script I thought – “Fuck yes!” and then… “Thank God!” The writing hits the primal part of ourselves that we often forget in our daily life. We need writing like this. We need to be moved in our seats before our brain kicks in.
On top of that I was keen to share a narrative that dealt with “Operation Iraqi Freedom” and to work with the wonderful Mad March Hare Theatre Co.
If you had three wishes from a lamp what would they be?
I would wish that we had proper world leaders again, like Nelson Mandela, leaders who perform not for themselves but for the people they represent. My second wish would be that we respect and improve our treatment of animals and the environment… and I would want my mum to get the operations she needs and my brother, who has Down Syndrome to receive the best and most inclusive life possible.
Why should someone pay $40 to come and see this play?
Because it is incredibly moving, everyone involved is generously bringing themselves and their hearts to the work. Because this play is so relevant to our lives today. Because the play is funny – it is a wonderful and entertaining night at the theatre. This isn’t a close and open your eyes “why the hell did I watch this?” show. At this show you will see artists at play, trying new things. This is ground-breaking, brave theatre. Do yourself a favour – go.
Tyler De Nawi and Aanisa Vylet can be seen in Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph.
Dates: 12 Apr – 6 May, 2017
Venue: Old Fitz Theatre