This review was first published on Daily Review on 7 April 2018
Poor Sami. He’s lying in bed at the UNNHCR (sic) refugee camp, craving sausages and dreaming of learning the tuba. He wants to perform concerts and earn enough money to escape to Germany with his wife and mother-in-law. Miraculously the hapless Sami (Yalin Ozucelik) finds a tuba: the saucy madam in the tent next door runs the camp’s Happy Cat Café, and the house band has one (it’s that kind of camp). There are also Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation hats and T-shirts for International Water Day (but no water) as the camp’s loudspeaker informs everyone. But when Sami’s tuba-playing instruction book calls for a piano, he reaches a dead end (so to speak).
Sami spirals into suicidal despair and he secures a gun, and now the entire camp is agitating for a piece of him. A refugee girl (Vaishnavi Suryaprakash) wants his death to draw attention to girls’ education. A femme fatale (Paula Arundell) is determined Sami will die for his love for her. And at the centre of it all is Charlie Gerber (Charlie Garber) the coolly manipulative towering maypole everyone else spins around. (Although the show starts with the conceit of a play within a play, the cast’s real names, or versions of them, are mixed with invented names. And snippets of real refugee’s stories and words have, likewise, been interwoven into the fabrications.)
Gerber, the opportunist-in-chief, runs a little start-up South African charity called WACAFECKEA. It has the UNN (sic) contract to run World Toilet Day, and Gerber is looking to raise his organisation’s profile. Sami’s death will be podcast! There will be memes and memorial recipes donated by Jamie Oliver! He is Malala! He is Mandela! He is Pussy Riot (or he will be Riot Pussy, as Sami, swept up by the possibilities, hilariously mis-repeats).
Things are pretty grim when it takes the prospect of someone’s death to energise everyone. But even as they connive with Sami in his delusion of grand departure, life is beautiful, as more than one character insists (and yes, Benigni’s movie seems to be invoked here too). Sami’s death will be beautiful too: it will go viral, Gerber assures him (he’s already taking selfies and planning a press conference for the funeral): “When millions frown and nod, that’s how change happens,” Gerber insists.
Belvoir artistic director Eamon Flack and his company have adapted the script from The Suicide, by Russian playwright Nikolai Erdman. A writer and satirist ranked alongside Chekhov, Erdman only managed two comedies before he was imprisoned by Stalin. He was rehabilitated by the time The Suicide was first performed 40 years later in Sweden, but he didn’t get to see the performance (the reviews were apparently excellent). For this production, Belvoir has changed the setting and some of the characters and storylines. And rather than targeting the malevolence of the secret police and state functionaries, it takes digs at trickle-down economics, Mercedes-driving humanitarians, and the rest of us who feel we are doing something meaningful with memes and hashtags.
As in the Sydney Festival show Tribunal, there’s scarcely a more important topic for theatre to tackle right now than the world’s treatment of refugees. Tribunal was a powerfully-told story of real life refugees and their advocates (some of them playing themselves). But where that show seemed committed to asking the audience to look at refugees and like me because I am good and talented and worthy, Sami in Paradise ask us to see refugees as human like me: as oddball and romantic and venal and vain and stupid and passionate as the rest of us (and with perhaps more reason to explore all the extreme range of human emotion, given their extreme environment).
If we argue for refugees to be freed from the prison of camps, how can we argue for the psychological prison of personality straightjackets? One where refugees and humanitarians must be heroes with halos to counter the state’s determination to turn them into criminals. There are no heroes in Sami’s paradise. Just crazy human beings and accidental saints; the second act starts with a Last Supper-like scene, a golden-crowned Sami surrounded by twelve cast members on the eve of his planned death. Every hustler is determined to write their own version of his legacy once he’s gone.
Ozucelik presents an increasingly tortured soul in Sami, and Garber delivers some of the funniest lines as he never stops looking for the angle. Hazem Shammas (as writer and poet Hazem) exudes experience and confidence. Paula Arundell, as Sami’s mother-in-law Fima and femme fatale Fairuz, is excellent, at one point seamlessly transforming in seconds from one character to the other (particularly remarkable given she only recently ended another performance of multiple roles in the STC’s Top Girls). If there are any criticisms, they are small: the tuba is picked up and dispensed with so quickly we feel cheated of a promised musical plot. Ozucelik confusingly dropped his South African accent into flat Australian vowels once or twice (but that strangely had the effect of adding to the character’s duplicity).
Flack says the company was deliberately frugal in the production’s staging, using whatever furniture and material they could find in the Belvoir space. But that doesn’t detract from the show – instead it feels free of anything unnecessary. Sami in Paradise is the kind of theatre you hope to find. It is smart but it has plenty of heart. It is about serious things, but it is full of absurdity and finds humour everywhere. It might be a play about suicide, but it couldn’t feel more alive.