Orphans – Should I stay or should I go. (Theatre Review)

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Orphans

Old Fitz Theatre, Late Show

19-30 April. You can grab your tickets here.

When Liam (Liam Nunan) bursts in on Helen (Jacki Mison) and Danny (Christopher Morris) having their quiet celebratory dinner to welcome the news of Helen’s pregnancy, he causes a confrontation, not with our own cultural values and the imminent threat of a refugee invasion, but with the ideological left’s and the ideological right’s battle over the problem of what to do about the refugee question. Dennis Kelly’s 2009 play Orphans deals with this divide and its grip on contemporary Europe, but Australians easily recognize themselves in either side of two (and only two) options presented through his play. Liam and Helen are less educated than Danny. Helen has improved her lot in life by assimilating into Danny’s world and her reward is a quality husband who has provided her a home and a certain safety net. But what Helen knows about Danny’s world that Danny does not, is that he is not safe and the barriers he places between himself and the violent world “out there” – cultural values, sympathies for other racial groups, the police and the government – are spurious protections that work more to misinform than genuinely protect.

In “The World Interior of Capital,” Peter Sloterdijk posits globalization as a vehicle for making capitalism the most important determinant of all conditions of life. He cites the 1851 Crystal Palace as one of the first examples of his point. The Crystal Palace was a free trade fair, yet its invisible walls made a point not only about those inside, but about those left outside. The winners of Capitalism are not breathing the fresh air at the top of a hill they have dutifully climbed, but rather exist inside an exclusive hot-house drawing inside itself what it needs from the outside. This internal space determines everything. It is people like Liam and Helen who understand this, who have miraculously found themselves inside the walls, and will fight for their right to remain there. It is the people born there like Danny, who do not understand the viciousness of those glass walls, who like to pretend they can tear them down.

Danny exists like most modern-day liberals. He’s steady, rewarded for his efforts, handsome and able to take control of his life. He is educated and descent, trying to do the right thing for his fellow-man out of duty and compassion. However, when Danny sees the spectacle of thousands of dead bodies washed upon the shores of Europe, for example, no emancipatory potential is available. He sees only the crimes of the familiar West, the self-serving attitudes of the comfortable. Everything “bad” about the foreign Other is dismissed. One of the great points of difference between Danny and Liam is that prior to the events of the night in question Danny has allowed himself to be beaten by angry immigrants, something that causes Liam to seethe with an anger upon which he obsesses. Danny takes his beating like an anemic martyr to the cause, unable to see anything other than the refugee plight, our imperialist capitalist ways forced upon them resulting in violence. Yet this position is an equally racist refusal of the Other and to need their innocence in this way is ideological fantasy.

It was Jacques Lacan who said that even if a jealous man’s claim about his wife – that she sleeps around with other men – is true, his jealousy is still pathological. This is because the question is not “does he have good reason to be jealous?” but rather “Why does he need jealousy to maintain his self-identity?” The question Dennis Kelly raises in Orphans is the same. The question is not “Is our fear of refugees well founded?” but rather “What does it say about our identity that we fear refugees?” The paranoia that Liam and Helen feel is no more or less real than the inertia in Danny brought about by his racist martyrdom on behalf of the flawless refugee. Proofs in their suburb can be found for either position anywhere they look. The important point Dennis Kelly makes, and this is a serious wake up call for all Australians, is that whichever side you embody, the result is the same. The sacrifice of the refugee, the immigrant will stand because this irrational debate is taking place inside the hot-house and while it may take a Liam to do the dirty work, he does it on our behalf and our hands are just as bloodied, as our invisible borders are well protected.

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Seeker Productions and Richard Hilliar bring this timely and important play to the late show stages at The Old Fitz. Orphans is staged on the set of Belleville and it works well for the productions purposes. Orphans is a rich, diverse play with much more to say about our current way of life than the snippet I’ve highlighted above. Questions about family are emphasized by Hilliar through his cast, examining where the boundaries of protection begin and end. He encourages suspense by a shrill and rapid dialogue that raises the audience’s engagement and doesn’t leave them to rest. Orphans is tough meat for the mostly white liberal audience of the Sydney theatre and Richard Hilliar spares us none of the barbs and jabs that are so good for us. His carefully chosen cast perform as enormities so we become engulfed by their world. Liam Nunan is a desperate Liam, all sharp points, anxiety and anguish. He is impossible not to like, impossible not to sympathise with and yet impossible not to recognize in our horror. Jacki Mison is the voice of a certain rationality that attempts to straddle two conflicting worlds. Of all the characters in Orphans she offers the most hope, has the most access to a genuine solution, yet she sells her position out with fence hopping and unnecessary defiance. Christopher Morris is an excellent Danny, the rational caring liberal who supposedly sees things with balance and perspective. He is possibly Dennis Kelly’s most dangerous character, and Morris plays him with all the sweet confusion and anemic neutrality of any contemporary left winger. It is in Morris’ Danny that the real cracks in the world of Orphans appear as he gently lets us see he is both victim and perpetrator behind his invisible world.

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Seeker Productions have made a fine choice in Orphans, bringing a timely, modern debate to the Sydney stage. Don’t miss this one, and take a group of friends. Grab a meal at the Old Fitz first and spare a little time for a strong drink with your friends after. You’ll need it.

Highly recommended.

Note:

For the above review, I am grateful for some writing by Slavoj Žižek, namely Against the Double Blackmail: Refugees, Terror and Other Problems with Neighbours and his article in The New Statesman entitled “What our fear of Refugees says about Europe.” In both these writings you will find an expansion on the points made above as well as a lot of insights that will enhance your experience of the very brilliant play Orphans at The Old Fitz.

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