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Sami in Paradise

Belvoir Presents SAMI IN PARADISE, based on THE SUICIDE, Nikolai Erdman, by Eamon Flack and The Company, in the Belvoir Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St. Surry Hills. 1st April – 29 April.

SAMI IN PARADISE, is a new Australian play, devised by Eamon Flack and The Company, based on a Russian text, THE SUICIDE, by Nikolai Erdman (1928).

The original play, THE SUICIDE, was set in Soviet Russia in the early days of the Stalin, seized leadership, where and when the political atmospherics changed dramatically with the New Economic Policy (NEP) dissolved and the social and economic life shifting towards totalitarian control. Semyon, finding life ‘catastrophic’ decides that suicide is his only option. Others see his impending suicide as an opportunity to use as a propaganda tool for their own agendas and inveigle him to be representative of their cause. What ensues is a comic/tragic chaos of desperate proportions.

Eamon Flack directs his company of artists to set this in a relevant Australian contemporary situation: they have come up with the present time and the Australian refugee moral dilemma. Says Eamon Flack in his program notes:

This is a comedy set in a refugee camp. There are more than 65 million displaced people in the world today – refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people … We’ve made this show together. I wrote the adaptation (the translation is not acknowledged) in the sense that I did most of the typing, but the research and the ideas that went into it have come from everyone involved. Over a period of several months we gathered hundreds of pages of research and dozens of hours of video content from a variety of sources, including self-made media projects written within the camps … Why would life as a refugee bear such a resemblance to life in Stalin’s Russia? Perhaps because both regimes seek to treat people as a problem to be solved … In terms of what’s Erdman’s and what’s ours, I’d say about 15% of the play is new material and the rest is a restating of Erdman in a different setting. …

So, Semyon has become Sami (Yalin Ozucelik), and we find him in a United Nations type refugee camp (anonymous country), where he has been for years in a hopeless anticipation of earning the money for his family: wife, Maria (Victoria Haralabidou) and mother-in-law, Fima (Paula Arundell) to get to Germany. He decides to escalate his chances by learning to play the tuba – but the lesson guide becomes a ‘nightmare’ and in despair decides to kill himself, instead. Neighbours learn of his intention and a ‘broker’ within the camp, Abu Walid (Fayassal Bazzi) arranges, for a money ‘donation’, that this final act by Sami will be for a ‘just’ cause. Sami and his suicidal intention becomes representative for the Charitable Organisation in the camp, Charlie Garber as Charlie Gerber; for Women’s Rights, Paula Arundell as Fairuz; for Education for girls, Vaishnavi Suryaprakash, as Vaish: for the Church, Arky Michael, as Father Arky; for the ‘Artist’, Hazem Shammas, as Hazem, etc. A farewell ‘party’, a last supper affair, anticipates the shooting. Sami, drunk, goes off at midnight to do the deed, but … mayhem ensues and the fact that Life is Beautiful, even in this place resonates as the final clarion call for a happy (?) resolution.

Eamon Flack has a bent for the hurly-burly comedy of the farce, particularly captured cinematic attempts, in the instance of say, the Marx Brothers, The Three Stooges, and perhaps the verbally redolent ‘screw-ball’ comedies: e.g. IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934), BRINGING UP BABY 1938), THE AWFUL TRUTH (1937), THE WOMEN or HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1939), and has pursued, I believe, a theatre style, in some of his work: THE ROVER, IVANOV, AS YOU LIKE IT, to replicate it, to varying degrees of integration and/or success.

In his notes for this production, Mr Flack notes:

Comedy is a technique that allows us to acknowledge things that we’re otherwise too embarrassed to acknowledge. Because we’re so embarrassed in Australia by the existence of refugees we always need them to be demons or saints – murderous terrorists or piteous supplicants (well, I need to interpolate, some us might, Mr Flack). This play is an attempt instead to lend this group of people the same privileges of silliness, joy, pettiness and ridiculousness that we get to enjoy.

Of my experience of the Belvoir/Flack efforts – this stylistic pursuit is, at last, working in SAMI IN PARADISE. Well, nearly. This company of actors explore and pull off the physical extremities with great competence and hurl themselves into the demands with a great sense of joy. They, too, relish the rapid-throw-away verbal gymnastics of their text, and the newly minted ‘stuff’, for example: the Charlie Gerber monologues, seem to be, especially, more pertinent and less of a comic show-off diversion than usual – the cast and the performance has been channeled into the ‘idea/ideas’ of the production.

The biggest problem with the audience reception of the verbal work in this production is really the difficult acoustics that Designer, Dale Ferguson, has given the production, with an open, bare, highly reverberant brick-wall ‘squash-court’ echo-chamber – no matter how interesting it LOOKS , and it does – that baffles and disfigures the clarity of the articulatory skills of the actors and turns their utterances into noise with a consequent lack of precision and clarity. Too, often, the actors are turned in wrong directions and elect to speak too softly for us, in this three-sided auditorium, for all to catch what is being said. As well, a live duo of instrumentalists, Mahad Ghobadi (percussion) and Hamed Sadeghi (Strings) often become more than background, atmospheric support, and tend to overwhelm the text which ought to be, I believe, the primary sonic offer.

I, also, wondered whether this text, especially in the last twenty minutes or so, becomes too didactic and obviously of a ‘righteous’ sentimentality? This company do seem to have a missionary zeal to communicate a very important social issue which they have, in double responsibility, also assisted in writing. Double reason for the zealousness.

It’s unadulterated acceptance will be, of course, a matter of taste. I found it, uncomfortably, over presumptuous, a trifle ‘icky’ in what felt like an overkill of intention. It seems to me that Mr Flack and his team are ‘playing’ confidently to an assumed choir of similar beliefs.

SAMI IN PARADISE is hardly worth bringing to the attention of the ruling government, censoring, or punishing the artists involved, as it was for the original production attempt in 1932. Author of THE SUICIDE, Erdman suffered Siberian exile for several years and denial of true artistic identity for the rest of his life (he never wrote another play), and his Director, Meyerhold arrested, endured slow torture to death. There is nothing in this version of THE SUICIDE as SAMI IN PARADISE, that will cause offence to the ruling government or even its opposition party – probably, quite the opposite, it will flatter some of them/us to think how libertarian it is to enjoy such an enlightened entertainment – “I must tell my friends how funny it all is.” (Just don’t mention Nauru, Manus Island anywhere in the same conversation, I reckon. It may give pause.)

Last weekend, I saw Armando Iannucci’s THE DEATH OF STALIN (2017) which could be, for those of you interested, an opportune comparison of intent and delivery – though it be a film, in technique, and has its own idiosyncratic artistic difficulties with its comic form.

This company is led valiantly and tirelessly by Yalin Ozucelik, who commits the whole of himself to the amazing arc of Sami’s journey. He is supported by all the actors who give witty and amusing offers. I enjoyed, especially, Paula Arundell, as usual, in a double role, and was grateful to see Victoria Haralabidou on a MainStage (I, so, admired her work, years ago, in a self written play: ONE SCIENTIFIC MYSTERY OR WHY DID THE ABORIGINES EAT CAPTAIN COOK?). Too, Fayssal Bazzi and Hazem Shammas, two stalwarts of late, of the Belvoir stage, who grow stronger and stronger with every appearance, and a welcome to Vaishnavi Suryaprakash in several delightful turns of character creation – intelligent and joy filled.

SAMI IN PARADISE is fun, if not as politically deft as it might want to be.