Extremely loud and incredibly close: STC’s Disgraced

First produced in 2012, Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced has the distinction of being the most produced play in the United States in the 2015-2016 theatre year. Set on the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Akhtar’s play is the story of Amir, a high-flying lawyer at the top of his game who wants to be a partner in his prestigious firm. When he agrees to support an Imam accused on charges of funding terrorism, he finds his world and assumptions challenged, and rapidly slipping away from him. Following a long line of dinner-party plays where arguments and battle-lines are drawn, territories staked, and relationships forged, broken, destroyed, Akhtar is clear to demarcate his characters’ points of view, but it lacks the spark which would make this play a fierce critique of our current socio-political attitudes.

Staged in the Wharf 1 theatre, Sarah Goodes’ production for Sydney Theatre Company is sleek and crisp, and moves with clarity and efficiency, building up its arsenal before unleashing the full force of the play’s arguments upon the characters and us, the audience. Handsomely supported by STC Resident Designer Elizabeth Gadsby, we find ourselves in a modern and spacious apartment on New York’s Upper East Side – a long row of windows opens out to a small balcony, while its interior is comfortably well-off, and speaks of wealth and security many of us can only dream of. But this is part of Akhtar’s – Disgraced’s – point – the comfortability and security of complacency, ingrained prejudices which go unchecked until they erupt and cause real damage. Cleverly, Gadsby’s set pulls our focus from the couches and windows upstage, to the dining table downstage, almost in the audience’s lap, putting them – and us – in a crucible, like water to boiling oil, to see how they react. Damien Cooper’s lighting is deftly used to convey passing time in the interludes between scenes, while his interiors are crisply lit, flooded with bright white light. Steve Francis’ sound design and composition echoes the passions and thrust of Akhtar’s characters, and grounds the play with a tangible sense of identity or heritage.
Goodes’ cast all rise to the challenge Akhtar has laid in front of them with relish. As Amir, Sachin Joab brings an air of cool sophistication to his lawyer, but his reluctance to help the Imam as well as his nephew, and his views on religion and specifically Islam upon which he has turned his back following a strict adherence during his childhood, cast him in a very different light at the end of the play to how we saw him at the beginning. As his wife Emily, Sophie Ross is charming and strong-willed, but there is perhaps a underdeveloped vein to her character which means she doesn’t quite fare so well in Akhtar’s plotting. As Abe, Amir’s nephew, Shiv Palekar has a small but crucial role, and he plays it with a mix of surety and naivety, grounding him in a very real world where he isn’t quite sure how much to say or who to trust. Glenn Hazeldine’s art curator Isaac is very much Amir’s counterpoint, but also directly challenges Emily’s assumptions and ideas, and he plays the character without much of his usual mannerisms and performance tics, giving one of his strongest and most grounded performances in recent years. Paula Arundell’s Jory, Isaac’s wife and colleague of Amir’s, is perhaps Emily’s opposite, but is also a direct antagonist to Amir; her bluntness and audacity to speak what is on her mind is refreshing, but it doesn’t absolve her from her the remarks she makes at the dinner table. There are some who will argue that the distinctly American accents and locations are not important, that it might as well be set in contemporary Australia, but I do think the location, the accents, the time-frame and specific reference to the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks make this a distinctly American play which has reverberations and resonances – perhaps even repercussions – throughout our current socio-political landscape, and it is stronger for being so.
Akhtar’s play pays homage to a long and established line of plays revolving around dinner parties of one form or another. Plays like Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage, and almost anything by Tennessee Williams are exemplars in this regard, and Disgraced fits right in. What these plays recognise and play upon is the notion that once you gather a group of four (or more) people in one place, you are necessitating each person having a different point of view, and also the possibility of them supporting one of the other characters, regardless of whether or not they are part of the same couple. Here, Akhtar uses this format to problematise and unpack a raft of (potentially incendiary) ideas such as the plurality or duality of identity or culture, and the potential incompatibilities which may arise; is it possible to attain (and maintain) the American Dream in post-9/11 America; latent or ingrained racial prejudices which have become naturalised by time and complacency; cultural appropriation, discrimination, and ignorance, with a side-helping of Orientalism. These are not light-weight issues, and are ones we should be addressing on-stage and off.
But Akhtar’s play doesn’t quite delve into them in the detail – or give them the full attention – they deserve, and it makes for a strangely disaffecting play at times. Emily’s frequent claims of Islam being founded on wisdom and beauty without acknowledging the darker and more problematic aspects of the faith are only briefly supported with references to the Great Mosque of Córdoba, Islamic tiling traditions, and passing references to the Quran. When Isaac levels the charge of orientalism against her when he sees her portrait of Amir styled after Velázquez’s ‘Portrait of Juan de Pareja’, she retorts with a classically-defiant ‘fuck you,’ but the charge isn’t raised again nor is it problematised any further, which seems troubling when you consider her entire artistic practice is based in cultural (mis)appropriation, or selective cultural appropriation, taking the bits and images and ideas of Islam that appeal to her and her aesthetic sensibility without acknowledging the rest of the iceberg.
Akhtar also levels his gaze at cultural plurality or duality, and asks if it is possible to attain (and/or maintain) the American Dream in a post-9/11 world. Yet, as far as the play goes in trying to enunciate the problems at the heart of contemporary twenty-first century America, it doesn’t go far enough, nor does it really dig deep enough either. Much of the argument made in Disgraced to this end revolves around the Quran, and how literally it should be interpreted. At one point Amir says that the reality of the Quran can be found in the desert communities of the seventh century AD, and that if the Quran is to make any real sense, that context is to be recreated. While interpretation is debated – a case of ‘to beat’ stemming from the same root verb as ‘to leave’ when talking about what to do when your wife doesn’t listen – Jory makes the point that sometimes intolerance is a way forwards (her example being France’s stance on Islamic traditions). And from there it’s a slippery slope to discussing the preference for justice or order when faced with the choice, with special attention to the 9/11 attacks. And I think this scene – the entirety of Scene 3, and especially the later half – is where Akhtar’s play could really be expanded, made more of.
The questions and points he raises are ugly, and certainly not for audiences who like theatre to be comfortable, and it is all the stronger for being so. But Akhtar has a habit of sticking the knife into a subject without moving it around; he doesn’t use his metaphorical knife to agitate, to put much actual pressure or difficulties in a character’s way, but rather to sting or aggravate. Another example of this can be seen at the end of the play. Scene 3 ends strongly with an ugly consequence of the discussion, but Scene 4 picks up six months later, as Amir and Emily are estranged but still speaking with a degree of familiarity, even if it is pained and coloured with a sense of finality. Scene 4 feels redundant and superfluous, a weaker ending than what we were left with at the end of Scene 3. Some of the content of Scene 4 is interesting, and is worth including – perhaps in an earlier scene, even if to do so might counter the taut thrust of Akhtar’s play – but the ending feels wrong, or less strong than what was intended.

This is not a fault of Goodes’ production, but rather the play itself, as are much of my criticisms with this play. Goodes’ production works through the arguments in the play with a robust intellect and a sense of grappling with something much larger than we are able to comprehend, but the play still leaves us wanting more. And maybe that’s the point in the end – that our current attitudes and actions towards racial and cultural tolerance and inclusivity (among so many other pertinent issues) leave a lot to be desired, so we have to put our faith in something else. Something bigger than governments and laws and physical borders. Something that makes (more) sense than what we can see…

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