SAMI IN PARADISE
SAMI IN PARADISE, Upstairs Belvoir at Belvoir, 6-29 April 2018. Photography by Clare Hawley: above and below - members of the company, centre - Yalin Ozucelik and tuba
The original comedy on which Sami In Paradise is based was written in 1928 in the USSR by the remarkable Nikolai Erdman. It was titled The Suicide and set in one of Stalin’s gulags – the infamous prison camps Erdman narrowly avoided by being exiled into obscurity instead. His crime – of making audiences laugh at the leadership – was a serious one: demagogues rarely tolerate being laughed at.
This new Australian adaptation of the play (which was not staged in Russia until 1990 when Perestroika thawed attitudes towards satire) is set in what could be our own version of a gulag – say Nauru or Manus Island – but is an undefined Somewhere in the world through the global failure to deal with tens of millions of displaced people.
In his adaptor and director’s notes in the program, Eamon Flack observes of the failure of the Russian Revolution that it was, “a weird experiment that could only work if humans were less human than they are.” Which, in the context of Communism actually means less greedy and less selfish, as well as less independently-minded and less caring.
Nevertheless, its obvious within minutes that in the context of this self-indulgent mess of a play, he and his cadre of actors overlooked the other great failure of the ideology: Collectivism. The notes continue: “We’ve made this show together. I wrote the adaptation in the sense that I did most of the typing, but the research and ideas that went into it have come from everyone involved...” And that, sadly, is all too apparent.
The basic flaw with any collective enterprise is a simple one: too many cooks spoil the broth, or to put it more globally: too many chiefs and not enough Native Americans. In the case of Sami In Paradise, from the opening moments when the volume has already been whacked up to 9.5 on a dial that only goes to 10 anyway, every one of the cast of eleven is fighting for their idea, their joke, their moment of mugging and gurning, their place in the sun.
Only the two onstage musicians, percussionist Mahan Ghobadi and strings player Hamed Sadeghi, have any grasp of the idea that less is often more. Consequently even though tucked away at the back, they’re frequently the most effective presence (Musical direction, sound design and composer – in collaboration with the musicians – Jethro Woodward).
There is wit and invention – particularly in the opening scenes when the camp's power generator fails (lighting design and acuity from Verity Hampson) – but there is also possibly unintended truth in the show’s blurb where it describes it as “Looney Tunes meets Hamlet.” Essentially, it means that as the eponymous Sami, Yalin Ozucelik is stretched every which way with more extended soliloquies and sweaty semi-derangement than should be the lot of any actor, no matter how fine he usually is.
Much of his angst is about having been in the camp for years with no money, no prospects, no hope of resettlement and finally, one night, no wish to continue. That the end of his tether is reached via a plate of large penis-like sausages that his long-suffering wife Maria (Victoria Haralabidou) furiously chops up is Benny Hill-funny for about a minute of a lengthy – no pun intended – scene, then descends into Valerie Solanos territory and is just tiresome.
Sami decides to learn the tuba because, of course, the word makes people chuckle (pronounced “tooobah”, even chucklier) and also as a means of earning enough money to get a boat to Germany. This prompts an oft-repeated one-liner about Germany being landlocked and some excruciatingly unfunny business as he fails to get a musical sound out of the instrument. After this failure he finally decides to shoot himself. (Not in the first half of the 2.5 hour-including interval show, unfortunately, but looking on the bright side, it was apparently 3.5 hours before it got snipped.)
The rest of the company dart in an out in a variety of roles and a grab-bag of attempts at funny business. Notably, Charlie Garber has a genuine knockout scene as Charlie Gerber, an obnoxious South African NGO operative, while Paula Arundell as Sami’s cranky mother-in-law and a couple of quick-change vignettes also has moments; and Marta Kaczmarek’s raunchy cafe owner is a small treat. In the main however, Fayssal Bazzi, Nancy Denis, Mandela Mathia, Arky Michael, Hazem Shammas and Vaishnavi Suryaprakash maintain a frantic pace behind various false beards, moustaches, wigs and anaemic characters.
Question: why is it acceptable for a person of colour to portray grotesque racial and ethnic stereotypes whose purpose is all about amusing what has already been identified as the “white lefty audience”? Am I missing something or being a humourless grinch in flinching at “shithole country” typecasting of African and generic Middle Eastern people (and women in general, come to think of it) when it’s aim is laughter at rather than with the character? Answers on a postcard, please, because this imperialist running dog lackey didn't get it.
The set and costume design by Dale Ferguson are apt and fun, there are hilarious moments between the repetitious endlessness of what a friend on the night called Theatre of Narcissism, but in the main it’s a sad waste of a cartload of top talent. And a satirical comedy about suicide has to be – in this day and age – brilliantly satirical and extremely funny indeed to pull it off. On the other hand, Bob Newhart apparently once said, "Laughter gives us distance. It allows us to step back from an event, deal with it and then move on." Many in the audience – and not just the cackling claque – laughed a fair bit, sometimes. Much anticipated, big disappointment.