It’s an odd category, isn’t it, the issues play? Shaw was good at it, Dostoyevsky was staggering at it when he turned the 19th-century novel into a form of drama, but it’s a kind of theatre that can easily flounder. All of which makes it very cheering that Disgraced, Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play from New York, is not only a fine piece of dramatic writing but it is performed by the Melbourne Theatre Company, under Nadia Tass’s direction, with such authority and surefootedness that you would think we made a habit of doing contemporary drama at a standard that would bear comparison with world’s best practice.
And this is all the more remarkable because each of the performances is on a par with Kat Stewart’s, who is well known to be one of the nation’s best actors. Hazem Shammas as the Muslim lawyer who comes unstuck gives a superb performance that could hold its own on any stage anywhere, and Zindzi Okenyo as a black woman of power stalks and sizzles the stage like a natural-born star. Mitchell Butel is flawless as a New York curator, fussy, ironic and Woody Allenesque, a superb inhabitation of a stereotype that turns into something more.
Disgraced has the sleek all-but-invisible stylistic power of upper-level cinema, and it takes the breath away a bit to see this achieved so effortlessly on an Australian stage. And there is, alas, something of a contrast with the previous play we saw in the small flattering space of the Fairfax: Hannie Rayson’s Extinction. In this, another issues play, again directed by Tass, only Ngaire Dawn Fair saw that a style adapted to Shaw or romantic comedy was the only way this material could be brought to life.
Disgraced is a lean, brilliant play that stares down the obviousness of its own topicalities and manages to be moving and disturbing at the same time.
A lawyer of Pakistani background, a characteristically tough New York high-flyer, has always been cold-eyed, to the point of contemptuousness, about Islam’s capacity to perpetuate violence and reactionary social attitudes – never mind the elephant in the room, the terrorism at the fundamentalist edges. And he is bemused at, barely tolerant of, his painter wife’s infatuation with all the abstract grandeur and Sufiesque radiance of mediaeval Islamic art, with its way of evoking patterns in the mind of God that yield no icon.
She’s a bright-eyed, kindly idealist and she’s encouraged by her curator friend, ever eager to catch the rustle of the nearest wind of fashion or intimation of a movement. His wife, who works with the atheistic naysaying Muslim American, is the kind of African-American lawyer who cuts the biggest kind of swath in contemporary Manhattan and doesn’t stand for any bullshit.
On the sidelines there’s a young guy who first of all wants to forsake his Muslim inheritance, to the point of getting a new name, and then, a bit later, goes the opposite way. In fact everything goes into reverse in Akhtar’s highly skilled play, which could be misapprehended as well made to the point of decadence.
The central characters go some way towards falling apart, that is to say they metamorphose into versions of their more heightened and damaged selves. This is carried to the point of tragedy – at least in the everyday sense – in the case of the lawyer husband.
As a director, Tass is superb at showing what the theatre can do. Her productions of two Annie Baker plays – The Aliens (2011) and The Flick (2014-15) – had a breathtaking plangency that compelled awe. Engulfed in its ritual and reality, you lost all thought of theatre as entertainment, let alone self-improvement.
And if Disgraced is not quite in this category, it is nonetheless an accomplished production of a sleek and powerful piece of contemporary playwriting.
Shammas is utterly credible as the lawyer husband. He has exactly the right kind of cocksure coolness, and then passes without contradiction into a stabbing intensity of violence that comprehends the horror of stereotype without surrendering to it. It is a superb piece of acting and it shows what riches our theatre could draw on if we had courageous enough directors with sufficient iron in the soul.
And Okenyo is equally accurate and commanding as the imposing black woman: it’s as if this performance of sweeping authority just assumes a lost tradition of appropriating American idiom that the actor can take in one stride.
Stewart glows with warmth and reasonableness through the spectrum of all her misapprehensions and mistreatments and misdeeds. It’s a tender-hearted performance that never flickers in its gaze at an awful reality. Butel, who can sometimes be mannered as an actor, is again effortless and authoritative in the way he embodies a type we recognise but can rarely reproduce with this degree of candour and detail.
If all our theatre had the pace and the accomplishment of Disgraced, we would go to the theatre with the buoyancy and the lack of apprehension with which we watch a first-rate piece of American television, such as The Night Of – which, as it happens, also has an American Muslim at its centre.
The thing is, though, the contemporary Australian theatre, just recently, has been looking uncharacteristically good. Sam Strong’s production of Jasper Jones, adapted by Kate Mulvany from Craig Silvey’s best-selling novel – with its susurration of To Kill a Mockingbird meets country Western Australia – was such a winner. With its dazzling Anna Cordingley costumes and its consistently mobile and gorgeous sets, this production exhibited a team who could produce the most popular level of theatre – the Broadway musical type – with an authority that has rarely been seen since the heyday of Jim Sharman.
And, beyond this, Jasper Jones has a central performance by Nicholas Denton to die for. The son of Jane Turner turns into a 14-year-old boy before our eyes: he’s goosey, he’s awkward, he’s utterly real, and he acts like an archangel. Cast him in the next revival of Tennessee Williams, let him play Hamlet.
This man is a star who burns up the stage with his power and his poignancy and his capacity to shock us into recognition and to make us gasp at the magnetism of his acting. I don’t think I’ve been so impressed by a male actor since Heath Ledger first appeared.
Something similar is true of the revival of Eddie Perfect’s The Beast in a production by that man of boulevards and crazed family horror shows, Simon Phillips. The Beast has a shining confidence that made a famous actor at the opening compare it to Restoration comedy. This production is done as breakneck farce and, with its spurting blood and shrieking belly laughs, it is a hell of a charmer, even though it’s significantly broader than the MTC’s 2013 original.
It includes an authoritative performance by Rohan Nichol as the alpha male/alpha cunt, and a performance by Christie Whelan Browne as his wife that would make Maggie Smith or the ghost of Jack Lemmon sit up at her lightning timing.
And there at the centre, in a slightly more pulled-back style, there is a magnificent performance by the playwright himself, Eddie Perfect, as the guy from the more modest background. His monologue about bread is delivered with a bravura and a precision that bewitches the heart.
VISUAL ART Antonia Sellbach: Open Fields
Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, until February 26, 2017
Arts Centre, Melbourne, September 23-October 1
THEATRE Power Plays
Wharf 2 Theatre, Sydney, until October 22
VISUAL ART Unknown Land: Mapping and Imagining Western Australia
Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until January 30, 2017
HORTICULTURE Floriade 2016
Commonwealth Park, Canberra, until October 16
THEATRE The Drover's Wife
Belvoir Street Theatre, Sydney, until October 16
Southbank Theatre, Melbourne, until October 29
CULTURE Oz Comic-Con Brisbane
Brisbane Convention Centre, until September 18
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 17, 2016 as "Amazing ‘Disgraced’". Subscribe here.