Speak English or Die
This ambitious play aims to expose the hypocrisies that under pin human relationships as it tells a “non-love story.” This story just happens to explore that territory via a culture clash where a devoted Islamic man faces the manipulations of our small-L liberal western Australian culture. What that means is you end up with a less clever version of Absolutely Fabulous meets Borat.
Ali (Danny Ball) comes into the exotic fabric shop owned by Mouche (Georgia Kelly) and her business partner Naomi (Phoebe Taylor) to fix the wiring that the first electrician had botched. Through a conversation with the academic atheist Jim (Chris Gaffney) about his Islamic beliefs, Ali gets drawn into their world.
Ali is attracted to Mouche – the actors’ glances at each other are perfect, casual and lifelike – but they both know it won’t, can’t possibly, go anywhere. Apart from the cultural differences, Ali is betrothed and Mouche has a bong-smoking alcoholic wreck of a boyfriend, Dan (Ben Byrne).
Still, this doesn’t stop the unlikeable Naomi from creating the time-lock for the story: If Mouche can crack Ali and sleep with him within 24 hours, she’ll pay out her share of the business loan and hand her shares over to Mouche.
As a result of this set-up, you can be forgiven for thinking that the play will be about that goal, instead that plot-line is resolved by the end of the first half of the show and the second half covers the fall out of this amoral ploy.
During the second half, every character has a chance to jump on their soapbox and do their best to convince you that their position on morality and religion is the correct one. While Ali has an innocence – or perhaps naivety – to him, none of the characters have you racing to queue up and sign the dotted line to join their belief system.
Three cliches come to mind when evaluating this play. First, “Don’t bite off more than you can chew.” The script struggles at a structural level as it tries to do more than is possible in a single story. Mouche’s mission to seduce Ali would have been enough to carry the entire show and the characters’ views could have then been shown as authentic responses to events. But instead, the second half of the play is didactic – characters preaching at each other and the audience – and it simply doesn’t work.
Writer Jeremy Johnson is know for his “tragi-comic… extreme political wrong” plays, including Helen Keller – The Musical, Blotto, about an American celebrity living with a family of drunken aborigines, and Crystal Night, a comedy about Ann Frank. His overall point seems to be to get a gag reaction from audience, but here it comes at the expense of a storyline that is sound.
The second cliche that occurred to me is, “What’s my motivation?” When Naomi sets Mouche the challenge of seducing Ali, there seems to be no reason for it. “She’s just a bitch” seems to be the only why the audience is offered. In the second half, as the actors pontificate, they struggle to breathe life into their characters.
While the things mentioned so far weaken the play, Sara Tabitha Catchpole and Robert Smith’s set design creates an emotional disconnect between the audience and the actors. The first flaw here is that the drama takes place over a long stage, leading to a tennis game (look left, look right) as you have to work out which actor to look at. The ultimate theatrical sin for me is anything that jolts you out of the world of the story. Having to figure out where to look, without the careful guidance of points-of-focus, does that. The second design flaw that puts an even more striking barrier up between the audience and the actors is the sterile white kitchen bench. It’s hard for an audience to feel the intimacy of the theatre when there’s a barrier between you and the emotional intensity.
All these things put up a lot of challenges for the actors, leading to the third cliche, “Don’t say your lines like they’re learned.” On the night I saw this play, actors kept forgetting their lines and as a result they missed beat after beat. Because they were so focused on remembering what to say, they didn’t have the freedom to think of how to say it.
While it’s clear Jeremy Johnson has wanted to create another tragic-comic play in the “extreme political wrong” sphere, this one is full of too many flaws to work.