This is an intense script with intense characters, intense dialogue, intense music and intense discussions about goats testicles.
It’s a kind of “Conduct Unbecoming” for the Al Qaeda age, not so much a whodunnit as a we-know-whodunnit-but-what-are-we-going-to-do-about-it? Colonel Tariq, decorated hero, has a secret; his wife, Farah, wannabe artist, has a secret. Protecting these secrets has a major impact on the deadly denouement of the play, which takes place in Pakistan in 2009 against a back-drop of full-on USA-bashing.
The Dishonoured is the antithesis of the recent Clint Eastwood biopic American Sniper set in Afghanistan, which drew criticism for its gung-ho pro-American stance. Aamina Ahmad, a London-raised playwright with American connections (Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Stanford University), by excoriating US foreign policy on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, demonstrates the deep-seated polarisation of US society that is being currently discerned in ever sharper relief in the Clinton/Trump presidential skirmishes. You’re either a bleeding-heart-liberal American or a shoot-first-forget-the-questions-after Yank. Here, in the persona of Lowe, a CIA agent sent to clear up the murderous mess left by another agent, we are very definitely in the latter classification and Ahmad lets us have it with both barrels. When one recalls that the play My Name is Rachel Corrie was, in effect, banned in New York one wonders how The Dishonoured would fare – this is its first production – under a Trump Administration.
David Michaels as Lowe is brilliant. He alone amongst the actors seems to have grasped the fact that you don’t give it all away in the first speech; you slow-burn, you build, you underplay and then when you need to be angry you can unexpectedly explode and take everyone by surprise. Robert Mountford, as Colonel Tariq, would do well to watch and learn and hopefully temper his central role with some subtlety, some poise, some understanding, rather than the manic, hundred-mile-an-hour, high-volume, mannered-expression-fest that he presents us with: this RADA-trained actor could gurn for England. The Arcola studio 2 is an intimate thrust stage with everyone close to the action: Mountford acts as if we are in the cavernous Palladium and he has to reach up to the Gods with every line and every expression.
Goldy Notay, as Farah, suffers from similar unnecessary exaggeration to which she adds extremely noisy shoes. These were a discomfiting intrusion in the dual scenes where she is splashing paint on canvas whilst the main (quiet) action is taking place simultaneously. My advice – lose the high heels: artists don’t usually work in them anyway. (Shona Morris – Movement – and Kat Smith, Costume Supervisor take note, perhaps). As for her paintings two of which are on visual display during parts of the show, you can see why modern art gets a bad name: wannabe artist? Don’t bother, love. Black snake-like squiggles splashed with red-paint are meant to be a counterpoint to the violent actions on stage, I assume. Nuts and sledgehammers come to mind: we’re a theatre audience we don’t need to be hand-led through the mine-field.
Zaqi Ismail, whilst giving a nice interpretation of Captain Badhshah Gul, exudes the impression that there is a much funnier character aching to get out but his amusing smirks and asides are neutralised by the Colonel’s relentless, bludgeoning tirades whilst Neil D’Souza gives us the typical one-dimensional Pakistani Brigadier routine.
Maya Saroya, as the doomed Shaida (and doubling as her sister Gulzar), along with Michaels, is the highlight of the show. Her playful, chatty fille de joie with child-like pretensions as a poet gives us some much needed depth of characterisation and relief from the full-on soul-searching indulged by the other characters.
Janet Steel’s direction is pedestrian: the interminable re-arranging of the furniture is entirely pointless and just slowed up the already ponderous action. This was partly to cover costume changes but there are better ways to do this: in fact, perhaps don’t do it at all. The sound, by Jai Channa, as well as the overly-dramatic music, included some good fly noises and amusing goat effects plus several mobile phones which all, strangely, had the same ring; a ring that often continued after the phone was answered. In this day and age, in a professional production, that is disappointing when it is so easy to make mobiles work properly on stage. The key moment of the play, on which the whole plot depends, takes place in the course of a one-sided phone-call. It’s easy to miss but, again, with speaker-phones – and as the Colonel is alone when he takes the call – we could perhaps hear the other end of the conversation to give us time for this crucial moment to sink in.
The lighting (Prema Mehta) is effective and there is an imaginative use of a paddle fan to create an edgy, dystopian mood as well as to suggest a helicopter à la “Apocalypse Now”. The overriding problem with the play, though, is that it is just too long. Ahmad, in striving for the all-pervading intensity, indulges in some serious over-writing in this her first produced play and as with any ultra-one-sided viewpoint it would be good to have a smidgen of balance so that it it is not just a Blame-the-Yanks directory.
Review by Peter Yates
How far would you go to protect your reputation and your honour?
When war hero Colonel Tariq joins the intelligence agency, his rise to the top seems assured. But during his first case investigating an alleged murder by a CIA agent, a diplomatic crisis erupts. As the two nations negotiate, angry mobs take to the streets.
Tariq is instructed to do anything he can to end the crisis. As his professional ambition and private life collide, he must make a life changing decision that will have far reaching consequences for the future of his family and his country.
Set in a world of espionage and secret agents, The Dishonoured is a compelling political thriller about surviving in a world of deceit and violence.
Goldy Notay – Farrah
Robert Mountford – Colonel Tariq
Maya Saroya – Shaida/Gulzar
Neil D’Souza – Brigadier Chaudhry
Zaqi Ismail – Captain Badhshah Gul/Nadeem
David Michaels – Lowe
Writer – Aamina Ahmad
Director – Janet Steel
Designer – Anthony Lamble
Lighting Designer – Prema Mehta
Composer – Jai Channa
A production by Kali Theatre.
15th March to 2nd April 2016