Perfect Pulitzer provocation

Disgraced (Queensland Theatre presents a Melbourne Theatre Company Production)

QPAC, The Playhouse

October 14 – November 6

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“Disgraced” starts as a sophisticated evening, even down to the pre-show jazzy sounds of Kurt Elling. It befits its setting of a cozy, cocooned New York elite high-life that exists in at least the beginning of this sharply-paced 90 minute, one-act play that won its first-time playwright, novelist and screenwriter Ayad Akhtar the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

On track for partnership in a Jewish law firm, high-flying lawyer Amir Kapoor (Hazem Shammas) lives with his artist wife Emilyh (Matilda-Award winning Libby Munro) in a spacious Upper East Side apartment. As a lapsed Pakistani Muslim, he is critical of Islam, even though his Anglo-American wife champions Islamic achievements in history and uses its motifs in her artwork. Urged by her, he responds to his nephew Abe’s (Kane Felsinger) pressure to support an imam accused of raising money for terrorism, an act that does not come without consequences.

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The fallout occurs at a dinner party that includes initially easy-flowing intellectual small talk until the cardinal rule is broken and over fennel salad, conversation turns to politics and religion, as the couple is joined by Amir’s African American work colleague Jory (Zindzi Okenya) and her Jewish art dealer partner Isaac (Mitchell Butel) who has been inspecting Emily’s work with view to its potential inclusion in a lucrative exhibition.

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Despite beings set in America, “Disgraced” is far from an American play, thanks to Akhtar’s confronting and dramatic yet witty script, which not only creates robust conversations, but simmers tension in the group’s interpersonal dynamics. So crafted is the script that the cleverness of its inter-connectedness of ideas is perhaps best realised after post-viewing contemplation about the similarity of Amir and Isaac, both striving to exist in rebellion to their upbringing, yet returning to the beliefs of their family’s faith in their argument’s full flight.

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In exploration of freedom of speech, political correctness and the prejudice around Islam, “Disgraced” is as contemporary as drama gets. Yet its exploration of identity brings an added relevance through its insight into human nature and the gaps between what we consider as our truth and what we censor to enable our existence in the modern world. And given the crisis of identity upon which our Australian national self is arguably built, there is much to reflect upon in consideration of intrinsic notions of race.

Under Nadia Tass’s direction, a stellar cast makes this confronting contemporary political drama truly absorbing; they all give measured performances of characters that might, in lesser hands have been simple stereotypes and their realisation of the different New York accent details (thanks to voice and dialect coach Suzanne Heywood), for example, add a musicality to the dialogue delivery. Shammas is brilliant as Amir, as he becomes the antithesis of what he has believed himself to be. And his interaction with Okenyo’s spirited Jory, brings incredible realism to their co-worker dynamic.

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In a play about relationships shaped by bigger issues, Munro takes the audience on the biggest journey and she shines in the role, lighting her character’s passion about her artwork from within and rising to the articulate occasion in defence of accusations of her work, influenced by the mosques of Moorish Spain, being orientalist. And her compassionate interactions with Felsinger’s Abe, whose appearances bookend the play, gives her character another appealing dimension and humanity.

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A strong aesthetic creates a powerful performance space. Indeed, the design team has created an atmosphere that doesn’t ever distract from the actors or arguments. Shaun Gurton’s single set stage design is detailed to realistically represent the apartment in which Amir and Emily would live – from its shelves packed with hardcover art and architecture books, the scotch on the sideboard and tagine on a kitchen or butler’s pantry shelf way in the background.

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And staging is well-supported by Russell Goldsmith and Daniel Nixon’s cinematic soundscape of New York noise and a lighting design (courtesy of designer Nigel Levings) whose evocation is most apparent in its stunning conclusion, focusing the audience on a final image of a tragic hero of mythic proportions, undone by equal parts circumstance and his own weakness.

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In the examination of socio-political themes such as Islamophobia and Muslim-American self-identity, “Disgraced” offers much provocation to further discussion of the prejudices towards Islam that exist in even the most enlightened cultural circles and it is easy to appreciate its Pulitzer Prize receipt. It is an exceptional play that serves as an important reminder of why the world needs theatre, brilliantly realised to create an intense and absorbing experience for its audience members.

Photos c/o – Stephen Henry Photography

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