The multiculturalism of Australia has been a hot-button topic of discussion for several years now, usually raised around issues of immigration, international relations, and national pride during events like Australia Day. But even if it seems particularly relevant recently, Alex Bezo’s 1960s script Norm & Ahmed shows that culture clashes in this land are old news.
When he misses his bus late one night in Sydney, Pakistani student Ahmed (Rajan Velu) is invited into conversation with Norm (Laurence Coy), a white Australia loitering around the same bus stop. The situation is ambiguous at first, is Norm a threat to Ahmed or just a lonely wanderer? Turns out, as in most interactions between people with different levels of power, that it’s a bit of both. But with not much else to do, they strike up a conversation, share some bold opinions, and come to a better understanding of each other, for better or worse.
Directing team Aarne Neeme and Terence Clarke worked to maintain the integrity of the original text while demonstrating how easily the situation translates into a modern Sydney. While racism is often discussed literally and metaphorically as a black and white issue, the layers of prejudice and superiority can be complicated and manifest in unexpected ways. In this production, the focus was on how the characters made use of their similarities and differences. Ahmed came to Australia to learn how he could help improve his home country while Norm got a kick out of his own performance of benevolence and acceptance of foreigners. But when Ahmed began to take liberties with Norm’s generosity, treating the men as equals in their standing, things soured quickly. The simple script belies complex characterisation that operates within a long established culture of bigotry and control in Australia.
The production design worked well to recontextualise the 50-year-old script in the current day with an immersive and immediately recognisable street-scape. The lighting design by Lucia Haddad incorporated warm street lighting as well as a looped video recording of a Sydney skyline that brought the city indoors. Further use of a park bench, bus stop signage, and a line of graffiti-ed construction site fencing created an eerily authentic setting for anyone familiar with walking through the city at night.
For anyone keeping up with the anti-vaccination protests across major cities over the past few weeks, Norm’s Australian flag shirt was a subtle threat, foreshadowing his attitude later in the conversation. Coy’s characterisation was a typical Aussie battler, rough around the edges with some outdated language but otherwise a seemingly genuine interest in being friendly. His history of violence, and perhaps the ease with which he brings it up with a stranger, were red flags but they were balanced by Ahmed’s political zeal and anti-authoritarian enthusiasm. Velu’s Ahmed was soft-spoken and deferential despite his superior intelligence; he is well-aware of the power-dynamics at play in this interaction. But what made the production so uncomfortable was Ahmed’s restraint and Norm’s contented dictation; this was Norm’s conversation from the very beginning and his continued command of the situation kept the tensions high.
The play ended how it always threatened to and that disappointment is only compounded by how easily the 1968 script suited contemporary reality and discussions in the arts about racism and Australian identity. As hopeful as Ahmed was for change in the status quo of Pakistan, it’s hard to find the same hope for this country.
Norm & Ahmed ran at Riverside Theatres from November 15th – 20th
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