Cross-cultural comedy-drama

Good Muslim Boy (Queensland Theatre and Malthouse Theatre)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

July 12 – August 4

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Amongst the vibrancy of contemporary Australian theatrical works, “Good Muslim Boy” stands tall as one of merit. The Queensland Theatre and Malthouse Theatre stage adaptation of the 2015 prize-winning memoir (and 2016 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards winner) of the same name by Iraqi-Australian actor, comedian and writer Osamah Sami is not set in Australia, however, but rather a wintery Iran where Osamah’s father has taken him on pilgrimage. The trip is Osamah’s father’s attempt to recharge and reconnect his son with his roots, in response to his failing arranged marriage and hedonistic Western lifestyle as judged by the suburban mosque community at which his father is imam.

The holy land holds little appeal for Osamah who, despite being born in Iran, speaks Arabic, but not fluent Persian. So while his cleric father is moved at The Imam Reza holy shrine in Mashad, Osamah is more interested in taking selfies and trying to catch up on sporting scores from back home in Australia. When tragedy strikes during the trip, there’s no time for emotion as Osamah attempts to work around the bureaucratic nightmare of pilgrim season Iran to return home to Australia without overstaying his visa.

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The life-changing and life-defining story is recounted by performer, cowriter and co-creator Osamah Sami himself, on stage, (along with Rodney Afif and Nicole Nabout, in a multitude of character roles). And what an extraordinary and absolutely absorbing story it is. Its 85-minute duration is one of sustained tension that remains wisely unbroken by an intermission, but is effectively juxtaposed by humour, frequently through the range of often comic characters identifiable to anyone who has travelled in the chaotic Middle East.

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The three-handed comedy-drama is realised in its energetic and compelling performances. As a young man torn between his obligation to be a good Muslim boy and his passion for the arts and the escape of storytelling evoked by his father’s tales, Sami makes audiences feel (rather than just feel for) his frustration as he is transformed into a stronger man. Aend his presence on stage leading us through his journey both creates a direct connection of shared moments and makes the show all that more special.

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Naout and Afif are clearly versatile performers in their swift switches in and out of countless both male and female characters (some who not even have any dialogue) that come into Osamaha’s story, presenting sharp delineation between characters, occasionally assisted by minimal, simple props. Although Nabout shows enormous range in shift, for example, from Osamaha’s eight-year-old daughter in Australia to a slow-moving octogenarian in Iran, Afif is particularly memorable as Osamah’s principled father. His measured performance makes his mix of dad jokes and wise words of regard for others most endearing, especially in his awareness and attempted support of his wayward son.

The solitary set belies its inventive staging as a perspex bus/tram stop shelter of moveable parts is changed at lightning speed into all sorts of locations. This not only allows the episodic story to pace along through its many short scenes, but it shows how the performer’s characterisation is primarily what drives the narrative. Ben Hughes’ lighting helps audiences along the emotional journey, warming into focus flashbacks in reminder of earlier situations, such as when Osamah’s father recalls life as an Iraqi living in Iran during the armed conflict between the two nations. Lighting also works well with Phil Slade’s composition and sound design to develop location and atmosphere such as in creation of a beautiful moment when Osamah awakes to a sunrise call to morning prayer.

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“Good Muslim Boy” is a big story full of small moments around its themes of family and relationship with faith. Indeed, there is a touching humanity to its minor moments, including share of an incident and explanation of how charity can destroy a poorer man’s pride. The autobiographical piece maintains the great heart that is the essence of the memoir that is itself dedicated to Osamah’s ‘father, confidant, friend and absolute hero’.

This is a little play that leaves a big impact, at once gripping and fascinating in its ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ reality. Crafted by Janice Muller’s direction, the heavy subject matter is handled well and enhanced by a skilful comic touch of also light and lively scenes to sit alongside heavier ones in tell of a refugee experience, making for a dramatic and touching theatre event that will not only rivet for its duration but resonate long afterwards in memory of its insight into universal themes beyond the specifics of faith.

Shadows of Shakespeare

The Shadow King (Malthouse Theatre)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

September 9 – 13

“The Shadow King” retells Shakespeare’s weighty “King Lear” tale, where the protagonist is an indigenous Australian whose kingdom is the outback. And it is an authentic account, drawn on co-creator Tom E. Lewis’s observations of family arguments and jealousies over mining royalties in the outback Northern Territory town of Katherine, proving the continued relevance of the bard’s work.

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Sick and tired of playing the whitefella’s game, the swaggersome Lear (Tom E. Lewis) who initially takes the stage promises to give his land to his daughters, if their pledges of love please him. Unwilling to appease him, the youngest, Cordelia (Rarriwuy Hick) is exiled, leaving her sisters to deal with their father’s temper and increasing insanity. It’s bad business, sad business, as one would expect from an adaptation of one of the bleakest pieces of writing in existence. However, this is not the “King Lear” of the traditional stage. Co-creators Lewis and Michael Kantor have rewritten the script in a mixture of Indigenous languages and creoles, as well as interwoven songs from a live band (‘Lear’s mob’), to retain, yet also transform the Shakespearean text.

The design is rustic and earthy in its red dirt and rusted staging, making use of compelling lighting and a dynamic soundscape to shadow and echo the space and transport the audience to the remote indigenous communities of its setting. The set is impressive, yet functional. A mining truck dominates the stage, serving as canvas for film projections of the different scenes, however, the production doesn’t rely on technology.

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Lewis, (known for his titular portrayal in “The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith”) gives a piercing performance as stubborn Lear, every inch a king but now a shadow of himself lost to madness. Charismatic but fearsome, he captures the duality of Lear’s fierce authority and carefree charm. However, the stand-out performance comes from Kamahi Djordon King, whose jester portrayal is thoroughly engaging in its humour.

“The Shadow King” is an exceptional piece of theatre. It is good not because it is indigenous; it is good and it is indigenous. Malthouse Theatre’s production more than does justice to the darkness of the King Lear tragedy, retaining its tormented violence and themes of greed, corruption, deceit and death. It is a challenging and haunting piece of theatre that will linger with you; the performances by the cast and designers will make you appreciate professional theatre at its best.