“You haven’t read the Quran, but you’ve read a couple of sanctimonious British bullies and you think you know something about Islam?”
Credit where credit is due (but be warned, this bit of praise will involve a spoiler), Nadia Fall’s production of Disgraced at the Bush Theatre contains one of the most brutally effective and well-staged pieces of stage violence I have ever seen and fight director Kate Waters ought to be commended for it. Too often we mock poorly executed scuffles without really taking into account how tricky it can be to make it convincing and here, it is so well done that the image seared itself into my brain, working its way into a dream I had that night!
But to the play at hand – Ayad Akhtar won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Disgraced and a quick scan of its key scene might suggest he played to his audience just a little. A lapsed Muslim lawyer and his white artist wife have friends over dinner, a black female law colleague whose partner is a Jewish art dealer and over fennel and anchovy salad, they explosively debate religion, politics and cultural stereotypes. But the play is more than just Pulitzer-bait, digging into just how deeply faith and upbringing shape our identities and how we carry them through life no matter how one might try to reinvent oneself.
In their swanky Upper East Side loft conversion – Jaimie Todd’s design hitting the right notes of tastefully expensive yet vapid chic – Pakistani-American corporate lawyer Amir Kapoor and burgeoning artist Emily live a life of gilded charm. But when she pushes him to meet a family obligation by supporting the case of a local imam who may or may not be being persecuted unfairly, an irreversible crack is forced into the veneer of Amir’s carefully constructed American-dream-chasing persona and as it splinters with force, the collateral damage is considerable.
That conflict comes mainly at the dinner table when a conversation meanders into the history of Islam and soon gets caught up in fierce debate as truisms are challenged, preconceptions analysed and unspeakable truths aired, not just on the lofty conceptual level but also on a personal and professional basis as the tangled web between this foursome is slowly revealed. Hari Dhillon makes a compelling case for Amir’s tug-of-war between head and heart, as something deep is stirred within him, and Kirsty Bushell is excellent as Emily, all liberal do-gooder and blithely unaware of the repercussions of so many of her actions.
But though Akhtar’s ear for razor-sharp dialogue is undeniable, the plotting does end up feeling a tad schematic in the perfectly multicultural set-up and the visitors don’t feel as richly written. Sara Powell’s Jory is vibrantly performed but isn’t really given enough to do and though Nigel Whitmey’s marvellously antagonistic Isaac makes a strong impact, the trains of thought about the proclivities of the Jewish race are left frustratingly unexplored. And Fall’s attempts to imbue the scene changes with gravitas just give them a lengthy opaqueness that didn’t appeal to me. The pace of the play is otherwise just right though, stretching languorously on its designer sofa until the intensity ratchets up to create one of the most scintillating scenes of drama you will see all year. Recommended stuff.