Review by Lily Stokes
Alex Buzo’s Norm and Ahmed debuted at Sydney’s Old Tote Theatre in 1968 - just two years after the Holt Government’s migration review of 1966. With the White Australia Policy still fresh in the collective memory of Australians, Norm and Ahmed confronted audiences with an uncomfortable and unforgiving portrait of race relations in Australia.
Unfortunately, fifty years on, the bitter flavours captured by Norm and Ahmed still persist in an increasingly globalised and multicultural Australia. Toxic masculinity, xenophobia, homophobia and intergenerational trauma cast a dark shadow across Australia’s National identity, making a quintessential piece like this as resonant for today’s audiences as it was for those in 1968.
Directed by Aarne Neeme, Australian Theatre Live’s production of Norm and Ahmed was not earth-shatteringly fresh - and a piece like this doesn’t need to be. In 2021, the dialogue resonates throughout new chambers without demanding adaptation or overhaul. It remains painfully relevant in the current political climate, with Buzo (rather eerily) foreshadowing a twenty-first century state of affairs with allusions to PC culture, #metoo movement, BLM, the refugee crisis and Australia Day debate - all captured in conversation between two strangers.
While waiting at a bus stop late at night, Pakistani student Ahmed (Rajan Velu) is approached by Norm (Laurence Coy) - a “great white” looking for a lighter. Conversation between the two bounces from politics, to love, to family, the past and the future, with the night ending in violence.
In the Director’s notes, Neeme wrote that this production “wanted to avoid… melodrama”. Unfortunately, there seems to be a lineage of twentieth-century Australian plays that rely on the tired and exaggerated reperformance of classist Australian stock characters. Working class men are often portrayed as uneducated and brazen, mispronouncing Australianisms and using lewd similes. In spite of this unavoidable legacy, Coy brought a shade of vulnerability to Norm which helped to materialise Neeme’s vision for this character- “a lonely old man searching for companionship… with a violent streak”. Norm’s social hypervigilance (perhaps caused by war-related PTSD and unresolved intergenerational traumas) embellished his shell of performative masculinity, almost fooling the audience into feeling sorry for a self pitying, insecure old bloke at the mercy of his own emotional dysregulation.
Coy’s perfectly manipulative Norm contrasted against Velu’s Ahmed, who tread carefully throughout their socio-political discourse. In response to Norm’s inappropriate, unpredictable and overly emotional behaviours, Ahmed offers “a thousand apologies” - despite being the victim (not the perpetrator) of poor social behaviour. The dynamic between Coy and Ahmed worked perfectly to showcase how marginalised people are manipulated to undertake emotional labour to appease their self-flagellating oppressors.
My primary criticism for both Coy and Velu would be a lack of ‘imagination’ in their performances. There seemed to be a lack of ‘thinking through’ the dialogue and, at times, it felt like the two were just waiting for their turn to talk. Although there were some quietly beautiful moments created on stage, I felt that overall their performances lacked sincerity and depth. However, this could have been caused by opening night nerves as the pair seemed to fall into a more natural cadence as the piece reached its halfway point. Either way, there seemed to be an absence of ‘raw’ emotion in such a charged piece. Norm’s journey to the brink of violence and his gradual loss of control over his violent urges should have been drawn from a much deeper place - unfortunately, I struggled to feel the electricity of violence build throughout the piece.
Despite a few lackluster areas, Australian Theatre Live’s production of Norm and Ahmed did well to examine the cross-cultural (and cross-generational) exchange between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ Australias. A generation of ocker old blokes are lost in the tides of change - suddenly displaced, alienated and lonely within a society that once worshipped them as heroes. They live in the rubble of what once was the Australian dream - but, in reality, had always been a white fallacy only afforded to a privileged and willfully complacent few. Unfortunately, their frustration is delegated to new Australians who threaten to disrupt the existing social heirarchies - such is the woeful and transcendent moral of Norm and Ahmed.