Writer and performer Osamah Sami draws on his award-winning memoir of the same name to spin a theatrical tale
Authenticity isn’t as absolute a concept in the theatre as it is in film; characters vastly outside an actor’s age range, for example, are commonplace on stage but unthinkable in the movies. Even gender and race are more malleable in the theatre, a device taken up with gusto in Osamah Sami and Janice Muller’s stage adaptation of Sami’s memoir Good Muslim Boy. Sami plays himself throughout – which is pretty much the definition of authenticity – but the other two actors, Rodney Afif and Nicole Nabout, take on a range of characters from young children to octogenarians, from drug-peddling taxi drivers to aggressively indifferent bureaucrats. It’s an economical way of painting on a large canvas, but it can also tend towards the schematic and superficial.
Sami’s story is a good one, with a solid emotional centre. He is going through a breakup with his wife, descending into a lifestyle of booze and casual sex, when he takes a trip to Iran with his father, a highly respected Muslim cleric. While Sami was born in Iran, to Iraqi parents, he was largely raised in Australia, so his dad wants him to experience Iranian culture as a means of reconnecting with his roots. It’s a journey that ends in disaster and death, plunging Sami into a bureaucratic and logistical nightmare. Given that he was raised here, and only looks like he belongs in Iran, his cultural alienation becomes a private hell he’s increasingly desperate to escape.
There are plenty of fascinating questions inherent in the tale, from the conflict between religion and secularity in Sami’s relationship to his father, to the benefits and limitations of cultural identity. But Good Muslim Boy doesn’t really explore any of them. Sami’s frustrating navigation through the pedantry of Iranian bureaucracy is depicted as an unmovable fact, wholly without resonance or even meaning. The gaping chasm between Australian and Iranian culture is reduced to a football gag. There’s a sense that the whittling down of a personal crisis into a palatable piece of theatre has resulted in an infantilisation of the material.
It also doesn’t help that all the scenes are so short; the rapid-fire rhythm of the play helps keep things moving, but it comes at the fatal cost of depth and reflection. At one point, Sami calls his mother to break the news of his father’s death, a scene ripe for pathos, but it cuts out the moment he delivers the crushing blow. We learn nothing about his mother’s relationship to her husband, or to her son for that matter. It’s understandable that the portraits of strangers Sami meets will be incomplete, but all the characters remain mere sketches.
Sami himself is charming and likeable, although he’s not a strong enough actor to convey the dismay and rising panic with much nuance. It makes sense on one level for him to play himself – it is undeniably authentic having him tell his own story – but it’s a problem when his emotional breakthrough occurs at the curtain call, after the play is over. Afif and Nabout are impressive and dynamic in the rapidly revolving door of supporting roles, but they’re never given the chance to dig deeper or develop characterisations.
Romanie Harper’s bus stop set, with swinging doors that transform the space into the suggestion of temples and offices and airport terminals, is terrific; set design as playground for actors. Ben Hughes’ lighting design is responsive and clever. Muller’s direction is firm and confident, and goes some way in mitigating the flaws in the adaptation. There’s a lot to like in the production, and it’s entertaining, but the overarching desire for authenticity has resulted in a play that is dramatically flat and thematically simplistic. In this regard, it’s a lot like the recent Australian film Lion: a remarkable true story that sticks too close to its source, and as a result comes across as almost quotidian.