Omar and Dawn review
Time Out says
This gritty and poignant play from a young Australian writer cracks open an unexpected world
It’s a pairing as unlikely as any.
Dawn (Maggie Blinco) is an Anglo-Australian octogenarian. She knits and takes in foster children from troubled backgrounds. Omar (Antony Makhlouf) is one of those kids. He’s 17, queer and Lebanese-Australian, and he has a bone to pick with the world. A tight script by Western Sydney writer James Elazzi tells the story of the pair’s tug-of-war relationship which ricochets from kindness to cruelty and back again.
At Kings Cross Theatre, a bed of gravel and a long table transform the small stage from Dawn’s dining table to a gay beat that Omar and Ahmed (played with gripping intensity by Mansoor Noor) frequent. Aleisa Jelbart’s set design is minimal, sleek and functional. All of the characters stay on stage even when they are not in the action of a scene, sometimes sitting in a corner or lying over the table. This gives the impression of their indelible presence in each other’s lives, as watchful observers of the action, even in scenes where they are not part of the story.
Maggie Blinco’s Dawn is compassionate and understated. She takes Omar in and sets him up with a job, despite the reluctance of her brother Darren, played with humour and gravitas by Lex Marinos. She calls Omar “mate”, in a touch that could sound clunky or orchestrated but instead is touching and adds depth through its idiosyncrasy. At first glance, the whole thing has the trappings of a white saviour narrative, but Elazzi’s nuance and characterisation of Omar and Dawn’s strange, entangled relationship elevates it far beyond this.
Besides, the real story is the friendship between Makhlouf’s Omar and Noor’s Ahmed. Under the direction of Dino Dimitriadis, we see the lines of family, truth and duty redrawn again and again in their tumultuous relationship. When Makhlouf and Noor interact onstage, they bring a raw physicality and brutality to their performances which underscores the bitterness and rage they heap onto themselves and the world around them.
Salvation and the loss of faith in a chaotic world are strong themes weaving the play together. In a heated moment, Darren says to Dawn, “I don’t need to save me... Save yourself.” Perhaps surprisingly, given her do-gooder nature, Dawn never shows any signs of being a godly woman. But the Muslim-background teen boys at the core of the story have beef with the big guy. When Ahmed is sick, cold and bumming around the gay beat, he points out cars of men he’s had sex with for money. He spits at one point: “We’re all animals”. He urges Omar to come back to the bridge, as if tempting him back to sin. Benjamin Brockman’s lighting design is subtle and used well here to give the stage a moonlit glow. Throughout the play, we only ever see Ahmed and Omar together at the bridge, except for in a touching final denouement scene as Omar and Dawn together bring some light into the darkness of Ahmed’s world.
Antony Makhlouf gives a well-crafted, forceful performance as Omar. Omar softens towards Dawn as the play goes on, but his difficult past makes him follow up any display of kindness with casual cruelty, as if he doesn’t know how to hand out compassion without a side serving of hatred. A combination of scripting and Makhlouf’s intensity keeps the tone at a high pitch for the whole play, which doesn’t give the moments of peak drama the contrast they deserve. Every word is hyper-enunciated, every action filled with rage, and so when the actual crux of the plot arrives, it feels like a bit of the same old.
There are moments of lightness which play well against the grain of brutality and harshness: the jokey chatter between Omar and his mechanic mentor, Darren, the moment when Omar thrusts a peanut butter sandwich at Dawn as a gesture of goodwill, the sweetness of their dancing together in the blue light of the refrigerator. These work to release and rebuild the tension, and the play could do with a few more of them.
Despite this, Elazzi’s play has a gritty poignancy that leaves a taste in your mouth afterwards. It fixes its gaze onto a side of Australian society that doesn’t get represented enough onstage— queer, Muslim, Lebanese Australia— and takes you along for a tense, gut-punch of a ride.