Review by Thomas Gregory
Red Stitch’s latest offering, Selling Kabul, follows an Afghan interpreter, Taroon, who is left behind by a retreating American military, hiding in his sister’s apartment, frustrated that he cannot see his newborn son. More precisely, the majority of the play follows his sister, Afiya, who is determined to protect her brother, even from himself. Australia’s premiere production of this play is a considered and respectful offering that will drag you into the world of Taroon and Afiya, despite its minor flaws.
The Pulitzer finalist Selling Kabul is a devastating tale of those left behind after (arguably failed) military operations by privileged others in a country filled with angry men looking to seek revenge on any and all who supported the invaders. It’s writer, Sylvia Khoury, is a New-York-born writer with a Lebanese background who has made substantial efforts to understand the situation and the character of the people who have been caught up in it. While sometimes it is difficult to determine if it is the script or the direction that fails to capture the complexities of gender politics in such stories entirely, there is little doubt that the entire perspective of both writer and production is one of great empathy for those trapped between a rock and a hard place.
Sophie Woodward’s set design for Selling Kabul might be the best I’ve seen this year. The small apartment not only looks like it was lifted straight from a building in Kabul, but it’s design also gives the impression of claustrophobia while offering the actors a surprising amount of space to work their trade. Seemingly small details, like including a window in the kitchenette and offering a glimpse of the world behind the bedroom/bathroom door, add to this sense that we are shown the entire world in which these characters are trapped.
Of course, Woodward’s vision is enhanced by the sound and lighting design offered by Richard Vabre and Grace Ferguson respectively. Speakers and lights situated carefully around this set drive the illusions of cars driving past and babies in hallways. Many productions prefer to save energy and resources on such details; Red Stitch’s devotion to detail pulls the audience into the world and screams, “this story may be fictional, but it is also someone’s reality”.
Unfortunately, Selling Kabul is not a perfect production. Each actor offers roles filled with empathy, but their work as an ensemble lacks nuance and chemistry. In some cases, lines come across as recited than delivered with meaning. More importantly, the show comes across as over-rehearsed, with many gestures, movements, and expressions impossible to believe are natural.
That is not to say this play has no great acting moments. Farhad Zaiwala’s restrained performance as Taroon’s brother-in-law could sometimes even be described as inspired, as we see the character’s real struggle between protecting his wife and “doing the right thing”.
Khisraw Jones-Shukoor is compelling as the reckless interpreter, sometimes blinded by his love for his wife and child. The relationship between Claudia Greenstone’s Leyla and Nicole Nabout’s Afiya is the most believable of the night, with the two women doing a superb job selling the chemistry of long-time friends.
When each actor has their chance to become the focus of the production, they shine.
Is it that the play was over-rehearsed? Or simply that parts of the script were found too challenging to interpret? In the end, many of these issues might fall on the head of the director Brett Cousins, who might have benefited from recognising those moments where “acting” overtook “being” in a play otherwise entirely naturalistic.
While it is admittedly a minor complaint to be had by the end of the night, this hard-to-believe acting in an otherwise fully-realised world might have many audience members finding it takes a while to become immersed in the story.
Selling Kabul is a play worthy of a Pulitzer, and it would be a travesty for any theatre lover to miss the Australian premiere of the play. Red Stitch has indeed given Sylvia Khoury’s work the respect it deserves, with an almost-too-polished production that challenges the decisions made by our government while exploring the truly human challenge of choosing between morality and family.