BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO
BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO, Redline in association with Mad March Hare Theatre Company at the Old Fitz, 12 April-6 May 2017. Photography by Kate Williams, above - Maggie Dence; below - Stephen Multari and Josh Anderson
The Pulitzer Prize for drama is often a better indicator of a play’s merit than the Tonys and Rajiv Joseph’s nominated work from 2009 is one of those. It is both realistic and fantastical and wholly absorbing. It’s also very funny and not only because it features a tiger whose vocabulary and interests include epistemology and redemption – despite being shot dead in the opening moments.
Bengal Tiger came to wider notice in the USA because the tiger was played by Robin Williams. Here in Sydney the producers sought and were given permission to cast a woman in the role and suffice to say that Maggie Dence makes a convincing, sardonic and mendacious tiger.
Rajiv Joseph’s imagination was stirred by what happened to Baghdad Zoo during the 2003 “Coalition of the Willing” invasion of Iraq. Enclosures and cages were breached by bombs, animals escaped and inevitably, killed. And a US Marine was mauled when he tried to feed tidbits to one of the big cats. From there, Joseph took it in a direction of thrilling theatricality.
The Tiger – a pragmatic and philosophically inclined beast – chose not to escape but instead watched the despised Lions make a run for it and after briefly roaming the streets, be slaughtered. But a Tiger’s instincts and needs being what they are, she cannot resist an arm thrust through the bars by Tom, a soldier (Stephen Multari). He loses his hand and the Tiger loses her life, shot by the young grunt’s best mate Kev (Josh Anderson).
The play, via a face smear of chalky white denoting each death, then becomes a ghost story as the Tiger prowls and watches amid the ruins (simple, persuasive setting by Isabel Hudson, effectively lit by Benjamin Brockman with a beautiful soundtrack for this unnerving place and time by Nate Edmondson). Rajiv Joseph intertwines the fictitious but hyper-real characters of the soldiers with other victims of that war – Musa (Andrew Lindqvist) an Iraqi gardener turned interpreter caught between cultures; his raped and murdered sister (Megan Smart), and the only too real Uday, vile son of Saddam (Tyler De Nawi); and the central symbols of all that was weird and atrocious in that conflict: Uday’s gold-plated pistol and toilet seat. If it were not largely true (the artefacts and behaviour in particular) it would defy credibility and dramatisation.
Director Claudia Barrie keeps a tight rein and focus on what could be, in lesser hands, a slithery landscape of dreams and nightmares, fantasy and reality. The actors, including Aanisa Vylet as a desert-dwelling leper, maintain extraordinary intensity and plausibility throughout the two hours (including interval) of this fascinating and remarkable play and production.
It’s not often that one leaves a theatre provoked by a tiger into deep thought about life and death and laughter and the whole damn thing, but this is one of those occasions. Recommended.