The Theatreguide.London Review
Bush Theatre Summer 2013
Ayad Akhtar's drama, winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize, is in part a scathing analysis of America's new racism of Islamophobia and its effects, and also a harrowing dissection of the lies and betrayals that are part of almost every human interaction.
While the two strands of the play sometimes lie uncomfortably alongside each other, struggling for our attention, whichever holds the focus at any given moment is intensely dramatic and emotionally shaking.
Amir is a successful New York corporate lawyer who has rejected the Islam of his youth, while his American artist wife Emily is fascinated by Islamic art and culture. In the course of the play everything Amir believes is certain in his life, including his sense of who he is, will be shattered, leaving him and everyone else facing a new reality they're not prepared for.
I don't want to go into details, since much of what happens or is revealed should be surprises. I'll just say that neither Amir's marriage nor his career is as solid as he assumes and that, like a lapsed Catholic, he has not travelled as far from his roots as he thinks.
At the centre of the play is a dinner party Amir and Emily give for her Jewish gallery owner Isaac and his black wife Jory, a lawyer in Amir's firm. We have all experienced the horror of watching a social event begin to spin out of control as drink or indiscretion pushes things toward something irreversible being said or done.
This dinner has that same slow-motion car crash quality, as beautifully observed small talk moves innocently toward touchy subjects, and people caught up in the spirit of debate find their positions polarising.
Amir is as surprised as anyone to find himself sounding very much like the Islamic fundamentalists he disdains, while the responses of the others expose how much they think of him as Other. And once some truths are spoken others tumble out, and we and the characters discover how many mutual lies and betrayals their lives are built on.
The situation of a social gathering turning vicious may recall Yasmina Reza's God Of Carnage, but Disgraced is the far better play. You'd have to go back to Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance or Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf to encounter so much raw passion bursting through the veneer of civility with such powerful dramatic effect.
Director Nadia Fall and her cast deserve the highest praise for seeing all the pain and painful truths in the text and not shying away from them. Hari Dhillon takes Amir on the shattering journey from confident self-delusion to broken-hearted self-discovery, while Kirsty Bushell, Nigel Whitmey and Sara Powell show each of the others discovering or admitting dark truths about themselves, all of them holding our sympathy throughout because their deceptions and self-deceptions are all so recognisably and convincingly human.
Disgraced is not perfect. As I indicated, the Islam/Islamophobia theme and the hidden-realities-of-personalities-and-relationships theme don't naturally blend together, and a fifth character is never fully integrated into the play.
But at its best it contains some of the most powerful dramatic writing in many years, and is a definite must-see.
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