THE SOUND OF WAITING
THE SOUND OF WAITING, Darlinghurst Theatre Company at Eternity Playhouse, 4-22 April 2018. Photography by Phil Erbacher: above and below Reza Momenzada and Gabrielle Scawthorn
Shortlisted for the 2018 NSW Premier’s Literary Award for Playwriting, Mary Anne Butler’s The Sound of Waiting had its premiere season last year in Darwin, where the playwright lives. The idea for the play was sparked by Tony Abbott’s infamous remark (in answer to a question about Jesus exhorting us to be decent to strangers that, “Jesus knew there was a place for everything, and it is not necessarily everyone’s place to come to Australia.”
The northern city’s history is closely linked to refugees, asylum-seekers, “illegals” – all those hoping for a better, safer life. And it’s not only its proximity to South East Asia, but also its remoteness from the rest of Australia that has made it a choice destination for the country’s desperate and deadly including, in this instance, The Angel of Death (Gabrielle Scawthorn). Not that the play is actually set in Darwin, but rather it inhabits that treacherous realm of “poetic writing” and magic realism.
Directed by Suzanne Pereira, The Sound of Waiting is essentially a pair of monologues that intersect only occasionally until the final scenes. The second character, who is very much of this world – the worst parts of it – is Hamed Mokri (Reza Momenzada). Hamed’s story is only too familiar to anyone even minimally familiar with today’s Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan...
Still blankly wide-eyed at the memory, Hamed describes the moment his world was destroyed. Out for a walk with his family one evening, he stopped to tie his small daughter’s shoelace. His wife and young son were therefore some way ahead and in the path of a bomb. His calm recounting of the immediate aftermath is beautiful and terrible; as is his description of the chain of events that led him to a leaky old boat on the ocean between Indonesia and Australia. Its simplicity and authenticity are more effective than any supposed poetry or magic realism.
It is unfortunate then that the brilliantly compelling Gabrielle Scawthorn is lumbered with a role that makes little sense in the presence of such an intensely truthful, powerful figure as Hamed. The Angel sets the scene for what transpires in a speech that tells us, “There is a space between sea and sky,” and she describes it as a niche, a nook, a recess. “The whisper between hope and despair.” And if you can reach in there – grab that tiny possibility – then the rest of your life might “become golden-edged with opportunity.”
After that, however, The Angel is of necessity sidelined in the face of a reality so enormous and – for Australians – so drenched in blood and shame, that she’s more ghost than devilish messenger. It doesn’t help that Reza Momenzada, who came to Australia as a child refugee in 2000 and in his first professional gig, is memorably dynamic and has a real role.
Also memorable is the set and integrated video design by Sam James and lighting by Chris Page. A matt black construction of a few steps, a platform and vertical shapes is surrounded by a semi-circular ceiling-to-floor scrim. On it, through it and around it are projected some of the most apposite, beautiful and effective imagery I’ve ever seen in a stage production. There is the ocean in all its moods, the sky, the galaxy and beyond, sea creatures flit in and out, vaguely abstracted buildings leave much to the imagination of the individual. Tegan Nicholls’ sound design is also indispensable to the created environment. Superb work by all three.
Finally, however, what happens between The Angel of Death and Hamed is, frankly, irrelevant. And worse than that, it feels like a way of diminishing and whitewashing the truth of Hamed’s experience. After all, if we can blame it all on the Devil/The Host and his minion, then maybe we’re not the culpable, complacent, wilfully blind mob of selfish 1st-Worlders we really are. Hmmm?
At just an hour, The Sound of Waiting is mightily flawed, but worth seeing for the emergence of an exciting new talent: Reza Momenzada. And if it also persuades you to do something – like support the production’s intended beneficiary, the Asylum Seekers Centre in Newtown (asylumseekerscentre.org.au) then it’s done a great job. Recommended with reservations.