Review: Jali at the Seymour Centre

Review by Bradley Ward

One of the greatest cultural trends of the 21st century has been the re-emergence of storytelling as a contemporary mode of entertainment. The last ten years have seen artists such as Hannah Gadsby, Bo Burnham, Tig Notaro and Mike Birbiglia all infuse their comedy with storytelling and personal trauma, in the process blurring the lines between stand-up comedy and theatre. It’s in this storytelling divide between stand-up and theatre that some of our industry’s most interesting work is currently taking place. It is in this storytelling divide that Jali exists.

Jali is a one-person show written and performed by stand-up comedian Oliver Twist, which received an acclaimed debut season at Griffin in 2021. Now returning to the Seymour Centre for Sydney Festival, Jali sees Twist once again abandoning the safety of his microphone stand to deliver the incredible personal story of his journey from Rwanda to Sydney. Over the course of just sixty minutes, Twist takes his audience from the experience of fleeing a genocide, to growing up in violent and lonely diasporic communities, to migrating to paranoid Brisbane suburbs, to settling in cramped Surrey Hills apartments. With little concern for linearity, Twist jumps back and forth across his complex and colourful life, bringing humour to stories of tragedy.

The quality of any one-person show lives or dies on the abilities of its main creative force. Thankfully, Jali is in safe hands with Twist. According to the program, “Jali” means “a West African historian, storyteller, praise singer, poet, or musician”: all roles that Twist ably embodies over the course of his show, confidently mixing major historical events with intimate, personal narratives to create a poetic and compelling theatrical experience. His text is fiercely intelligent, juggling comedic one-liners and profound musings with ease; never trivialising the tragedies he has seen but never allowing the show to become swallowed by sorrow. In the show’s most powerful moments Twist sends his audience from raucous laughter to uncomfortable silence in seconds, concluding a rapid fire series of punchlines with a piece of social commentary so perfectly timed and sincerely delivered that it would knock the breath from the entire room.

Interestingly, the definition of the word “Jali” does not include “actor”. This is apt, as I would not describe what Twist is doing in this show as “acting”. Twist does not carry himself on stage with the commanding presence of a trained actor, he does not attempt the voices and physicality of the other characters that inhabit his stories, we do not see him shake or tremble or scream as he reaches the emotional climax of his story. Instead, what Twist offers is something much rarer and more valuable: he offers us a performance free from artifice. Twist takes to the stage with the comfortable ease expected of someone with his stand-up background, and tells his story simply and honestly. His performance is full of genuine sincerity and warmth, never once leaving the audience feeling emotionally manipulated during horrific moments or attacked during moments of social commentary.

Of course, even a one-person show is very rarely the product of a single person. The set, lighting and sound work together seamlessly to bring Jali to life, crafting a vision that is minimalist yet integral to the story. The set, which at first glance seems to be a pile of risers without adornment, become the perfect playground on which for Twist to perform, providing numerous little dips and rises on which he can make a stand during a comedic moment or sit down during emotional ones. The lighting, while sparse and never fully encompassing the stage, tirelessly follows Twist, creating intimate pools of lighting that eventually come to represent certain people and ideas. Music and sound effects are absent through much of the show, but when they are used they are done so subtly and never threaten to overpower the story being told. From a technical perspective, Jali is a wonderful exercise in subtle and supportive design that bolsters the main theatrical thrust of the show without ever distracting from it.

If one was to make a game of actively looking for problems then there would certainly be some flaws to be found. There was occasionally shaky stagecraft on display, with some scene transitions lacking a certain sense of urgency that I would normally expect when seeing theatre. However, these criticisms are minor, and to linger on them for too long would do a disservice to this show. Jali is not business as usual. It is not a traditional, European play with perfect story structure and simple digestible meanings. To judge it by the stagecraft of traditional theatre would be disingenuous and unfair. Jali is a complicated collection of stories, weaved together to form a tapestry of human experience that is violent and confronting yet hopeful for change. It is theatrical storytelling at its most pure, free from spectacle and artifice, rich with intelligence and heart.

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