By Matt Lyon
(482 words, 6-minute read)
Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, a modern tragedy about the fall of an apostate Muslim-American lawyer, is a notable inheritor of the realist theatrical tradition. Sadly, it inherits the worst traits: Ibsen’s machine-cut-jigsaw plotting and Shaw’s parliamentary-debate dialogue. To be fair, Akhtar recognises that his play might engender a “stilted and stentorian” delivery, and instead asks that it be played “allegro con brio”, as entertainment. But in Singapore Repertory Theatre’s production of the play, Gaurav Kripalani in the lead role of Amir isn’t up for that.
Kripalani constantly asks the script’s permission to engage with his environment. Will the lines he is reading in his head allow him to speak, to walk, to pick up a bottle? The result is a thousand tiny instances of lag, plus the occasional blip when he turns his mental page too quickly and anticipates a reply. It’s as if his performance were an audiobook shoddily edited together from disparate takes. It has the disembodied feel of an audiobook too: while Kripalani’s voice rails and blusters as his character spirals downwards, his heart rate never gets above a gentle stroll.
The other actors are stronger. Jennifer Coombs as Amir’s white Islamophile artist wife possesses poise and emotional fluidity, but seems infected by Kripalani’s lethargy in her scenes with him. Daniel Jenkins mitigates an appalling American accent with a spiky smugness which he hides beneath the professorial demeanour of his Jewish gallerist. LaNisa Frederick as Amir’s African-American colleague lands every punchline she is given by a script that asks for more laughs than this production can otherwise deliver. And in a smaller, structurally convenient role as Amir’s activist nephew, Ghafir Akbar is urgent and alive to the onstage moment.
But even in the scenes without Kripalani, director Nate Silver can’t quite summon enough vigour to power through the script’s sometimes clunky lines, nor enough humanity to paper over the obvious joins in its construction.
And James Button’s set reflects those joins all too clearly. There are missing walls behind shelves and doors, and the balcony looks out onto black stage curtains rather than the Manhattan skyline the script requests. Button has tried to make the missing bits look intentional by positioning a cutaway of the fourth wall downstage left, implying that we get to see through solid objects in this world … but the director does nothing with this conceit, and ultimately it just looks like Button didn’t finish the job.
The most virulent reactions to the US stagings of Disgraced focused on its politics, specifically its depiction of a westernised man of South Asian descent devolving into a regressive stereotype of violence and tribalism. While I have some sympathy with this view, I tend to think the solution to any instance of problematic/problematised minority representation is more – and more varied – minority representation. My own reaction is far simpler: this is an underwhelming production of an overrated play.
SRT’s Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar is on from 16 Nov – 9 Dec 2016. It is directed by Nate Silver, featuring Gaurav Kripalani, Jennifer Coombs, Daniel Jenkins, LaNisa Frederick and Ghafir Akbar. More info here.
Guest Contributor: ArtsEquator Contributing Editor Matt Lyon has taught theatre at the School of the Arts Singapore since 2012. For 15 years, Matthew was editor of and a writer for the now-defunct review site The Flying Inkpot Theatre and Dance, and he has conducted workshops on theatre criticism for several local institutions.
Read what other reviewers are saying about SRT’s Disgraced:
“Lessons for a Divided Society” by Akshita Nanda (Straits Times)
“Review: Disgraced by SRT” (Bakchormeeboy)
“Theatre Review: Disgraced” by Adibah Isa (Buro247)
Disgraced Reviewed: Contemplating Islamophobia in a Post 9/11 World” by Reuel Eugene (Reuel Writes)