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THEATRE: 23 JANUARY 2016

By GERALDINE WORTHINGTON

The Tribe, adapted by Michael Mohammed Ahmad & Janice Muller from a book written by Michael Mohammed Ahmad | Directed by Janice Muller

Urban Theatre Projects & Belvoir (belvoir.com.au) | Surry Hills backyards, Sydney | Until 7 February

Recently the representation of Arab-Australian Muslims has been negatively tainted by media spin, particularly the on-going suggestions of terrorism threats, which heighten a fundamental misunderstanding of cultural differences.  Urban Theatre Project, via The Tribe, is a theatrical attempt to go some way to counteracting this extremely simplistic portrayal of the Muslim community living in Australia.

The Tribe began life as autobiographical fiction by author Michael Mohammed Ahmad and it recounts the story of three generations of a Lebanese family who arrived in Australia before The Lebanese Civil War began in 1975. The family are minority Shi’ite Muslims and hence the title of the play.

Hazem Shamma is our storyteller on stage, accompanied by Oonagh Sherrard, on cello. Originally intended to be staged in local Surry Hills backyards, on opening night heavy rain stopped backyard play and the audience was relocated to Belvoir’s rehearsal studio — the Warehouse.

The story is told in three parts, mostly from the perspective of a young boy and his love for his grandmother — his Tayta. The stories he shares about the old country and its ways are her stories. It is Tayta who holds the secrets and scars of the family history and through these small moments, Shamma reveals the challenges of living within two cultures.

Significant moments , a huge wedding celebration for example, are described in extended detail, whilst other episodes are compacted, as Shamma darts in and out of stories. Mostly the performance is a series of accounts of his early childhood spent in Alexandria, a rundown suburb at that time. Each main recount begins with “I was only seven/nine/eleven when this happened but it always feels like right now.”

Establishing a voice that encompasses so many characters is no easy task, and Shamma is at his best when he is relating these early childhood events and their impact. In just 60 minutes, he charms us with his recollections, charismatically and compassionately sharing events, which by the very act of sharing offer solutions of optimism, generosity and humanity.

Janice Muller is co-adapter of the script as well as director, and she has moulded this material into a successful theatrical shape. It is difficult to comment on the total theatrical experience, as the alternate venue did on the night negatively impact on acoustics, visibility and mood.

But then, the most famous of all theatrical dramatist’s home was The Globe and it was always at the constant mercies of the elements.

Hazem Shamma. Image: Catherine Cranston.