An Easter Saturday night opening at the Old Fitz. And what an opening. Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, by Rajiv Joseph, presented by a young independent company, Mad March Hare Theatre, directed by Claudia Barrie, was an unexpected pleasure. One of the highest order.
On the eve of the celebration of the Resurrection of the Christ of the Christian faith – a faith that has, for me, given deeply seated ethics to try to live by, but which have, as I travel the wearisome path of living and witnessing my world events, become less and less powerful in my debating consciousness, to try to reckon the ‘balance’ and ‘justice’ of what I ‘know’ as right and wrong, good and evil, so that the gathering conclusion that it is our animal nature (perhaps, like that of a Tiger) that will dominate our choices on this planet over that other ‘gift’ we have developed as a species, of reason, brings no elation. But, Mr Joseph, with this play, has found a means to startle one to fresh musings as to just why we, homo sapiens, exist and what for? It is a wonderful couple of hours that is as refreshingly ‘deep’ as it is funny and compassionate, though not necessarily, absolutely, re-assuring. One leaves the theatre with two gifts, the first a refreshed pondering upon our species’ continuing cataclysmic choices, and a celebration of the power of the theatre, when the writing is as daring and good as this.
Rajiv Joseph has written a play that straddles the live world and the bardo. The bardo is that state of the soul between its death and rebirth. When you die, some believe, you enter the bardo and your true nature is uncovered. The Bengal Tiger, two American army ‘grunts’, Tom and Kev, one of the sons of Saddam Hussein, Uday, with his brother’s, Qusay’s, decapitated head in a plastic bag, the haunting presence of a defiled and ravaged innocent, Hadia, move and hover in the bardo, to reveal a more sophisticated understanding of the nature of the living animal than they had when alive, and, yet, are still in suspense, throughout, about the meaning of it all. A talking wraith-tiger and many talking human ghosts in the city of Baghdad at the zoo (and later, prophetically, at a leper colony) at the time of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 is part of the theatrically brilliant imagination of Mr Joseph. The existential provocations of all, especially from the Tiger, are a kind of fertile ‘garden’ of some verbal beauty.
In the play we meet our journeyman, Musa, an Iraqi interpreter for the American invaders, who was once an artist/gardener and had made the fantastically beautiful topiary garden for the bloody, violent Uday in his enclave. It is Musa’s tragic history we follow as he has an ‘engagement’ with all the other characters at some point in the play. A gold plated pistol and a golden toilet seat, once belonging to Uday, too, become the plot device to draw us through the drama and intellectual ‘topiary’ of this play.
I could not help but be enthralled by this magnificent text that dared to talk to us as adults and be unafraid to grapple with the existential questions that have haunted us from the time of the Greeks into Shakespeare, and, forward, for instance, into the modern times of Arthur Miller, Edward Albee and Tony Kushner, in the public, secular spaces of our theatre. Mr Joseph creates a real and surreal world, an absurdist world, switching from one to the other with ease and unrelenting focus, balancing seriousness of mind with ‘whacky’, one-line zingers of comedy. I have not had a better time in the theatre since Angels in America for the assiduous and daring conversations that we have with the characters, and the challenge of the content of the play.
On top of that, Mad March Theatre has found a group of collaborators that confidently and without a single unsteady will, deliver clarity and vivacity to all that they do in service to the vision of Mr Joseph’s play. Set designer Isabel Hudson has found a magnificently simple solution to using this small Old Fitz space to accommodate all the needs of the play – a diagonal damaged wire fence through which most move from one world to the other, and a set of LED animal masks (using templates provided by Wintercroft Masks) to make living ‘topiary’ hedges, that are wonderfully executed, and resonate both with beauty and a grimness. The costume design, by Stephanie Howe is also carefully and beautifully wrought. Benjamin Brockman has created a visual ‘gothic’ with his detailed and atmospheric Lighting Design. Nate Edmondson, composer and sound designer, has contributed a rousing and propelling, authentic sounding soundscape to keep the play moving and focused – the best of his prolific contributions to the Sydney theatre world for some time.
All of the actors are impressive. Josh Anderson, creates graphically a relatively simple minded soldier of war, Kev, who becomes ‘blasted’ with the experience of it all and finds himself incarcerated in a ‘madness’ that has him moving to the bardo where, too late, some knowledge of what life is, becomes a relief. Tom, played dynamically by Stephen Multari, a soldier ‘injured’ with the loss of a hand and the blight of greed – his possession of ‘gold’ – drives himself to self-estruction. Tyler de Nawi, as the ghost of Uday, is impressive with his double-identity as a lover of beauty and a ruthless psychotic bloody villain – come-to-me sexy and yet repellant, both at once. Megan Smart and Aanisa Vylet are convincing and startling in their characterisations, presenting the literal as well as the metaphoric power of what they have to do. Maggie Dence as the Bengal Tiger (the role performed by Robin Williams on Broadway) is steady and wise with a huge textual responsibility, carrying the dignity of the benighted Tiger with simple feline gesture and a ready wit for the humour and a gravity for the ‘philosophy’. While Andrew Lindqvist, as Musa, gives a slow burn of a performance that gathers impact and power as it unwinds – an intelligent – dramatically well-plotted – and moving performance. Musa and the Leper, the only live characters left at the end of the play. The former with a decaying ‘spirit’, the latter with a decayed, decaying body – they have not yet entered the bardo – and nor have we!
Credit must go to Ms Barrie who has directed a wonderful night in the theatre. Her aesthetic control, her guidance of the actors and other collaborators, and the confident clarity of her exposing of the text, the writing, is very, very adept. (Too, she has negotiated the tricky need for some of her actors to speak in Iraqi with seeming success). I have seen her work with Belleville and Shivered and a growing confidence informs each of her productions with play choices of some formidable challenge. Pay attention to her work, I reckon. Something special this way comes.
Go. Do not miss this production if you cherish theatrical excellence.
P.S. I hope our playwrights go to see this play. With our prodigious play writing industry (see my blog summary Looking Back at 2016) one continues to ask where are the plays? Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo has vision, courage, intelligence and a refined sense of theatre craft – how to tell a story, how to illuminate an ‘agenda’, how to entertain and enlighten. Compared to my last experience at the theatre, which was Fallen, a new Australian play, at the Seymour Centre, The Mad March Theatre Production of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, shows the way. Writing (the writer is God – poor writing, no play. I know, from first hand experience!. One cannot make a silk purse out of a pig’s ear, no matter how clever the actor), directing, design and acting, all the ‘tools’ in place to demonstrate why the theatre is important and irreplaceable as a forum for the search for meaning in our lives. It is a heritage that has been going on for two and half thousand years!
P.S to the P.S. Who reads plays at the Sydney Theatre Company and Belvoir? Why haven’t those companies produced this play? It is a credit to the Independent Theatre scene in Sydney that this play has finally been produced. It is a shame that the major companies did not include it in their repertoire, don’t you think? After all it only has a cast of 7! well within the budget display at this administrative heavy company. And with imagination, as demonstrated at the Old Fitz, the Design can be solved.Who reads and recommends the plays?
N.B. This company has not in their program notes included the writer, the reason why all this exists. Grrrr! Briefly, Rajiv Joseph has written many plays, Animals Out of Paper (2008) was produced at the Ensemble, and Gruesome Playground Injuries (2009) has had several airings in Sydney. Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo was first performed in California in 2009, and opened at the Richard Rogers Theatre, Broadway, in 2011 in a limited season, with Robin Williams. It was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 2010. Next to Normal, a musical, controversially won it. Hmmm?
Company: Mad March Hare Theatre in association with Red Line Productions
Venue: Old Fitz Theatre, Cathedral St, Woolloomooloo
Dates: 12 April – 6 May 2017
For more of Kevin Jackson’s theatre reviews, check out his blog at Kevin Jackson’s Theatre Diary
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Permission to Spin (Old Fitz) – theatre review
- Crimes of the Heart (Old Fitz) – theatre review
- Oil (Red Stitch Theatre) – theatre review
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television