THEM
Riverside Theatres, Parramatta

July 28, until July 29
Also, Casula Powerhouse August 16-17
★★★★

Them and us. How easily we divide humanity into two groups.

We demonise “them” for their religion, politics, sexuality, or even their clothes. They’re simply not like “us”. The consequences are often bloody. Indeed, such division underpins almost every act of collective brutality and persecution.

Them is drama with a compassionate heart.Credit:

No group has been demonised more in recent years than refugees, not least in Australia where cynical Government policy kept “them” anonymous. So much easier to be indifferent to their plight when we don’t have faces or names.

The strength of Samah Sabawi’s play is that she has created a flesh-and-blood refugee tale of lives caught in the crosshairs of war.

A young couple and their infant son shelter under their bed as bombs rain down on their apartment in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. It could be Syria. It could be Iraq. It doesn’t matter – this is not about who is “right”.

Omar (Abdulrahman Hammoud) and Leila (Taj Aldeeb) tremble, cuddle and even joke as they keep despair at the door and decide whether to flee.

Leila desperately wants to leave while they still can. Omar, a head-in-the-clouds idealist, wants to stay. Everything will soon return to how it was, he assures.

Meanwhile, he smokes hash with his mates, naïve romantic Mohamed (Sahil Saluja) and macho resistance fighter (Mehran Tajbakhsh). The trio’s camaraderie and humour lend a surprisingly light-hearted atmosphere to the piece.

The arrival of Omar’s match-maker sister is the play’s pivot. Selma, the hard-bitten survivor is initially redolent of Mother Courage. But her flawed character is the most complex and her grasp of their collective plight the most nuanced.

Selma offers her relatives the chance to escape. But it will come at a high moral cost. Is it a price the couple is prepared to pay? What price survival?

Claudia Greenstone as Selma delivers a strong performance in the play’s meatiest role. Her speech as she unpacks her backstory is full of raw pain.

Lara Week’s set of louvred windows and piles of rubble evokes the crumbling, dangerous world in which the safest place for an infant is under the kitchen sink.

Bagryana Popov has delivered a solid production of the 2019 play that has since been shortlisted for the Victorian and NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.

As it kicks off a tour of the eastern states, timing that felt unsteady in places on opening night is likely to settle.

This is a drama with a compassionate heart. It invites us to look beyond the dichotomy of “them” and “us”. Perhaps there is only us.

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