Religion and fennel salad: Disgraced

You feel like a voyeur watching Disgraced, the fiery Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Ayad Akhtar, at the Bush Theatre. Over the course of 90 minutes everything that is civilised and awfully respectable about two New York couples is gradually undone and at times the conversation is so frank and uncomfortable that you forget you are at the theatre.

It turns sour in moments over a fennel salad. As each character presents their views on religion and racial discrimination in today's modern world, they stumble and fall over their arguments and soon there is no turning back from a car crash. It is funny and topical but perhaps a little unnerving, particularly as the recent events in Woolwich bring religion and terrorism back in focus.
The play tells the story of Amir, played by Hari Dhillon. We first meet him as he is posing in his underwear for a portrait that his wife is painting after a night out that ended with Amir being verbally  abused. He is a hotshot corporate lawyer and living in New York's Upper East Side and hoping to soon become partner at the firm. Amir's family came to the US from Pakistan but as he works for a Jewish law firm he conceals that little detail. In fact he conceals many of his origins as he drinks wine, eats pork and generally regards all religion to be of little worth.

Things get complicated when at his wife Emily's insistence (played by Kirsty Bushell), he helps a local iman who has been arrested on terrorism charges. His nephew feels that he is just being harassed by the police and so Amir finds himself being drawn back into the past he has left behind. This sets in motion the events that would then explode at the dinner party.

Emily is also an artist whose is developing Islamist influences in her work. She is hoping that she will get her work shown at the gallery that Isaac (Nigel Whitmey) runs. Isaac's wife Jory (Sara Powell), is a work colleague and friend of Amir's. Isaac and Jory are coming over for dinner to tell her the news.

There is a further (possibly superfluous) complication to the matters but what is amazing about this piece is how all the elements are kept in a fine balance, rarely seeming out of place. It is a piece that is only ninety minutes long, but crackles with cutting dialogue that has you on the edge of the seat. The most shocking things in the piece that elicit gasps from the audience are not elaborate words but small gestures that have much bigger meanings. And despite these shocks the ending is quite cathartic and satisfying.

The cast of five deliver what seems like an exhaustingly intense performances. But what is most remarkable about this play is how it gives you equal time and opportunity to see each characters perspective, even if it is not one that you would necessarily agree with.

The staging of the Bush theatre is designed so that you walk into the theatre as if you are walking into their apartment, and you feel like you are there in the flat. It heightens the feelings of being an observer there. If only they made a cup of tea for everyone (and gave assigned seating) it might calm the nerves a bit.

Photo: Hari Dhillon, Sara Powell, Nigel Whitmey and Kirsty Bushell... Just before the fennel flies... Disgraced runs at the Bush Theatre until 29 June. Tickets available from their website. A chat with other fellow bloggers that includes Disgraced is here.

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