Review by Taylor Kendal
‘’Scuse me, mate. Got a light?’
It’s a line as typical and seemingly innocuous as it gets. But it’s this line that opens up what is seemingly a simple conversation between two very different people after midnight at a bus stop. What follows is a rollercoaster dialogue of a seemingly innocent, if not curious nature, and leaves you reassessing your morals.
Written by Alex Buzo and first performed over fifty years ago here in Melbourne, Norm and Ahmed is the one act story of a young Pakistani student Ahmed (Rajan Velu) who is stopped late one night by a stranger, Norm (Laurence Coy) who asks for a light for his cigarette and is very keen to keep his newfound companion around for a good yarn. What ensues is an intricately layered show with harsh themes of racism, xenophobia, and cultural acceptance and assimilation.
Though the play is over fifty years old, the themes are still as relevant as ever, which isn’t necessarily a good thing to admit. The show is confronting; challenging ideals, fighting for and against change, and battling cross-cultural and multigenerational beliefs. A warning should be stated; this play can at times be quite confronting, and deals with some coarse language, racist hate speech and violence.
Played against a small but intimate backdrop of Sydney after dark, matched with a fitting soundscape to put you in the moment, the characters we meet are complete opposites, and yet are familiar to the audience. Norm is a gruff, brazen Vietnam veteran, who despite insisting that Australia is the place for people like Ahmed, can’t quite remove himself from the learned behaviours and attitudes of his generation and his upbringing. There are at times where he allows himself to show vulnerability, these moments portrayed in a raw and real way by Coy in the role, but with the mannerisms and at times peculiar shifts in conversation, there is always a lingering feeling in the air of concern. Ahmed, on the other hand, is a polar opposite to his on-stage companion. He is a student from another country, here to study his tertiary education, focusing on History, and gaining a sense of the people. He is calm, intellectually guided, and often offers apologies for voicing his own beliefs in a city that is not his own. He shows resilience in the face of prejudice that so many in our society still face today.
The two leads play well against one another, showcasing the stark differences between their characters, the changing direction in conversation, both in its highs and lows, and the way they convey feelings of confliction and suspicion with simply a facial expression over words, particularly by Velu in his performance. Their performances suit the nature of their characters, embodying those we have seen over and over again, both in the arts and in every day life. The shy but bright-eyed idealist looking to conduct social change, and the member of the older generation, set in his ways and beliefs despite his insistence on the opposite, though he can’t quite manage to shake what is deeply rooted in himself. There is constant wondering about just how this night will end, with the volleying conversation between these two strangers.
There are moments where you find yourself second guessing where you thought the performance was going, and then realise that maybe you were right all along littered throughout the piece. Until perhaps the last minute at most, where things take a drastic, sudden turn that perhaps at the time I didn’t see coming (or I had convinced myself that I hadn’t), until reflecting after the end of the performance. Its moments like these that capture the stark and devastating realisation that these themes are still rampant in our society. Confronting, but captivating, this production of Norm and Ahmed is one that all should experience.