Sami in Paradise – Crashing against a wall of magnitude. (Theatre Review)

Sami in Paradise

Belvoir Theatre

1 – 29 April You can grab your tickets here. 

Images: Clare Hawley

When writing about theatre, it often happens that the subject matter with which one is to engage frustrates the critical drive. Either that or it menaces the entire enterprise and plan of astute approach, undermining all this writers good intentions toward inviting a sensible dialogue or assuring a resolute examination. An afflicted concept, an unauthorized problem can threaten to capsize the writing. As it turns out, I am a child of the theatre, an entity whose doubtful expressions are yet to destroy me. I confess, therefore, that not only am I near to the problem I seek to discuss, but more often than not I am a contributor to the very problems I seek to solve, or at least engage with. Theatre, very much like the no man’s land of the refugee camp that Sami (Yalin Ozucelik) inhabits is affected by the demise of an aura in its art as are all regions of existence claiming transcendence. Just as authority has been undermined in the political realm, so it has been in the philosophical and artistic zones of creativity. There is a rapid vanishing of something we had counted upon, a certainty that humans need in order to thrive and name and create. Something is insinuated by the trickle-down divinity of the work of art.

As writer Nikolai Erdman (as adapted by Eamon Flack and the company) intends, Sami in Paradise is recognizable to the audience, not for a shared experience but for a shared erosion in our fissured worlds of auratic claims or mystical foundations upon which authority depends. What do we receive from power and diplomacy (or any dominating thought energy) when they are no longer backed by a guaranteed position of authority? Do we scale back on the way deals are cut or do we watch and wait for the emergence of a new to fill what might be missing? Does not theatre itself labor under this problem? Art, indeed theatre has all but lost its authority, due in no small part, to it its own efforts at insurrection. Surely this is why a Russian playwright, in 1928 is still the freshest voice around? Itself embattled by threats of poverty and extinction, the theatre seems small in comparison with damaging political entities, and even to, at times, protect its own intellectual diversity. However, it does not escape its liberal and cripplingly bourgeois histories, just as theatre regularly exhausts its practitioners under an ever-expanding political pejorative. Theatre suffers from its own authoritarian rule, and the struggle over what carries authority or what is poised to make “great art” never stops. Once upon a time theatre, like the non-life of Sami Bazzi, was flagged by a disastrous truth. Today, by contrast, disaster (and theatre) are without truth and we have to bear each without a saving sign cast from some luminous “beyond.”

Sami, deprived of shelter, cast on the very edge of metaphysics is thrown back upon minimal signposts that are absurdly small for the enormity of his (non)sacrifice. We are all more alone than ever before. This condition favours the spread of social narcissism. Sami is right when he cries to those with three pairs of shoes, he is coming. He is, in fact, already here. He advocates a kind of untimely activism, driven home by the joint closure of the philosophical and the political and the colonization of their vehicles: art. As we all scour our peripheries for our authentic creative voice we stumble into our often-abandoned sites of ethical investigation. We, the theatre maker and audience alike, claim a distinction and difference we do not practice as we both reject and consume the approved protocols for reading politics. Is Sami coming for us, or the right-wing neighbor next door? Or is he coming for both of us? Or can he not tell us apart?

One is arrested by the magnitude of oversized concerns that apply to existence. We are compelled to return to fundamental structures, the theatre and its audience, to keep going. We are magnetized by the return of and driven by the return to ancient objects, concepts and formulae. These calls may seem marginal, but they require such a backup from tradition, the plays and referential pretenses. Deep inside we all still grapple with age old question – where does the political pose problems? How is the very possibility of peaceful coexistence undermined by apparently unbreachable structures? [1]

Sami In Paradise asks age old questions regarding the values of human life, but it is inside of us that this beautiful play comes to vibrant and brilliant life in its complex political questioning for the typically left-wing audience. This is a wonderfully written, thrillingly adapted satire filled with almost perfect performances. Suitably and appropriately low cost Eamon Flack directs an exuberant production that directly repudiates the curse toward pretentious perfection that theater can suffer from in this city. Filled with motley error and delightful spontaneity, Sami in Paradise connects with its audience and manages to avoid the preaching overtones of theatrical displays regarding the topic of displaced persons. Dale Ferguson’s simple set, the beautiful writing, stellar performances and the magical music of Mahan Ghobadi and Hamed Sadeghi collaborate in true artistic style in the revelation of this very Russian tale. There are always many reasons to go to the Belvoir theatre, but Sami in Paradise is surely one of the best arguments ever made.

[1] Powering down on AUTHORITY – Avital Ronell.