Soviet playwright and screenwriter Nikolai Erdman wrote a subversive satirical piece, The Suicide, in 1928. But before it was ever staged, Soviet authorities of the Stalin era banned the play. It also led to Erdman being sentenced to three years’ exile in Siberia and being forbidden from residing in Moscow for a further 10 years. It was only in 1969, more than 40 years after The Suicide was penned, that the play made its stage debut – in Sweden. And while Erdman had the chance to celebrate the great reviews the production received, he never got the chance to see the piece performed.
Belvoir artistic director Eamon Flack has worked with his company to create Sami in Paradise, a contemporary version of Erdman’s play. While still focusing on the efforts of unscrupulous individuals to exploit one man’s suicidal ideations for their own causes, Flack and Co have chosen to do so against the backdrop of the global refugee crisis. Similarly to Erdman’s critique of the Bolshevik Revolution, Sami in Paradise aims to highlight the absurdity of society’s attitudes to, and treatment of, the 65 million displaced persons surviving in today’s world.
The title character (played by Yalin Ozucelik) has long lived in a refugee camp with his wife, Maria (Victoria Haralabidou) and her mother, Fima (Paula Arundell). Sami has reached the point where he can take no more of his current circumstances and convinces himself that his liberation from the camp will come about by his becoming an adept tuba player. The trouble is that he’s able to play only a single note on the instrument. Soon, he meets Charlie Gerber (Charlie Garber), the CEO of his own non-government organisation, who convinces Sami that there’s something he can do that will see him gain attention and benefit the lives of many more – kill himself.
But Gerber isn’t the only opportunistic charlatan with designs on utilisating Sami’s imminent suicide. When Sami’s intentions become more widely known, a cavalcade of individuals, representing a variety of causes, come out of the woodwork with intentions of using his death as a means of giving a voice – or a louder voice – to those causes. But is Sami actually ready to give up his own life and dreams? And does any of what is to occur really make sense?
Flack and his company’s efforts to update Erdman’s text to provoke thought and conversation about a crucial issue are undeniably brave. However, some issues arise in the execution. The narrative’s development is at times clunky, some of the humour lands far more successfully than other instances, and the running time feels slightly too long given the limited focus of events in the second act. We eventually arrive at a point where there’s appropriate reflection on the ludicrousness and opportunism that we’ve witnessed, and a clear message is conveyed about the dogged determination to live that most of us have, but the journey to that point is a bumpy ride.
Without doubt, the standout aspect of Sami in Paradise is Ozucelik’s magnificent performance as the title character. It’s a portrayal that’s properly multifaceted and that allows us to see a man so completely fatigued by his stateless existence and desperate to pursue a better life. Haralabidou is strong as Sami’s wife, Maria, delivering a tenacious and sympathetic character. Arundell is entertaining as her feisty mother, while Garber’s performance as the dissembling NGO chief is the source of a lion’s share of the piece’s most successful comedy.
Dale Ferguson’s sparse set locates us effectively in the refugee camp, while Jethro Woodward’s soundscape and compositions are wonderfully atmospheric, enhancing that sense of place. Hamed Sadeghi (strings) and Mahan Ghobadi (percussion) are crucial on-stage players.
Sami in Paradise is not the most impactful theatrical piece to address the predicament of refugees and asylum seekers to appear on Sydney stages, but it is brave in its attempt to reveal absurdity in the most unlikely of places. But the absurdity that goes on in the camp, and the nature of the events in which its inhabitants are swept up, is a shrewd means of demonstrating that human beings, regardless of location and circumstance, think and feel in common ways and pre-occupy themselves with the same trivial issues. The obvious takeaway is that we are a brotherhood and should exhibit more compassion for one another.
Ultimately, this play speaks to the atrocious, inhumane manner in which the wider community – both here and around the world – deals with displaced persons. We may not be able to find people like Sami some integrity in their paradise, but we can certainly raise our game.
SAMI IN PARADISE – SEASON DETAILS
Dates: Playing now until 29 April, 2018
Venue: Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir (25 Belvoir Street, Surry Hills)
Tickets: belvoir.com.au or by phone on 02 9699 3444