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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
DISGRACED
at Bush Theatre

UNDER THE SKIN
By JOHN NATHAN

  Hari Dhillon, Sara Powell, Nigel Whitmey and Kirsty Bushell/ Ph: Simon Kane

Under its relatively new artistic director Madani Younis, West London's most reputable new writing venue achieved quite a coup in snapping up American writer Ayad Akhtar's explosive play. 

Just before Nadia Fall's production opened, three things happened: the Boston bombings, jihadists murdered a British soldier on the streets of London, and the play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. So there was plenty to raise the profile of this play's U.K. premiere, which was previously seen at the Lincoln Centre in 2010. It would of course be crass to associate all Muslims with the Boston outrage and the London murder – or indeed with the jihadist acts that preceded them. Yet because they were carried out in the name of Islam, a play that examines where Muslims fit in societies where Islam is a minority religion has a real sense of urgency.

Akhtar refreshingly confronts the question head on. His main protagonist is corporate lawyer Amir (Hari Dhillon), a secular Muslim who has rejected Islam. In place of his religion Amir has all the trapping of a successful career, many of which seem the opposite of a traditional Islamic life. He works for a largely Jewish law firm, lives in a swanky apartment on the Upper East Side in which all the action takes place, and in Emily (Kirsty Bushell) he has a non-Muslim wife who is a successful artist. Her most recent work is rooted in the geometric shapes found in Islamic art, which makes Emily more sympathetic towards the religion than her husband. It's this central paradox – or perhaps more accurately, this switching of roles – that sees the play's non-Muslims argue in favour of the religion and its Muslim, Amir, against, that makes Akhtar's play so compelling.

The author packs in a lot of pertinent fact in order to set up a climactic scene of barbaric ferocity. Most importantly an (off-stage) imam has been arrested on terrorist charges and Amir is persuaded by Emily and his nephew Hussein to advise him.

Matters come to a head during a dinner party hosted by Amir and Emily. Their guests are Isaac (Nigel Whitmey), a Jewish curator interested in exhibiting Emily's work, and Isaac's African American wife Jory (Sara Powell), a lawyer who works for the same firm as Amir. The pre- and post-prandial conversation attempts to challenge Amir's critical attitude towards his own, albeit rejected, religion. And in making his points Amir says things about Islamic intolerance that not many – if any - playwrights would have the confidence to write. The playwright, who comes from a Muslim background, does so with panache, entwining political with sexual affairs. The arguments and observations that spill forth are politically charged to the max, and Akhtar's dialogue is littered with the kind of sentences that most people who would think them would say only in private, which makes it all the more compelling to hear them said out loud. The result is one of the most thought-provoking and compelling evenings at the theatre you are likely to see in a long time. 

Fall crafts the dinner-party scene beautifully, evoking just the right sense of alcohol-loosened inhibition. But what sticks in the mind are the arguments, and the sense of a man struggling to distance himself from the intolerance of the tradition that he was brought up in, and then pulled and pushed back by circumstances and the attitudes of those he worked so hard to assimilate with. It's a play that deserved the Pulitzer.

 


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