BWW Reviews: DISGRACED, Bush Theatre, May 29 2013

This new play by American actor and writer Ayad Akhtar, won its author the 2013 Pulitzer Prize. Its UK premier comes hot on the heels of sell-out runs in the US. Disgraced is set in a swanky apartment on New York's Upper East Side, the home of corporate lawyer Amir Kapoor (Hari Dhillon) and his white artist wife, Emily (Kirsty Bushell). One of her paintings - a mosaic-inspired Islamic pattern in blues and whites - is prominently displayed.

In a play about race, art and religion, this painting is the catalyst for a debate on Islam today, as some common misconceptions come under scrutiny. Disgraced is an immensely sophisticated portrayal of our times, which resists all the usual traps that surround this sensitive subject. Instead, Akhtar brings contemporary politics into a relationship with powerful ancestral feeling and chips away at the surface of multiculturalism to reveal the somewhat rickety structure supporting it.

The play's protagonists - all superbly acted - are part of a wealthy elite. Emily and her curator Isaac (Nigel Whitmey) read Rumi and discuss the contemplative beauty of Islamic forms. But Amir's position within his circle, while never secure, comes increasingly under threat when his nephew asks him to work on the case of an Imam, wrongly accused of raising funds for Hamas. What follows is a grand unravelling of prejudices - where no one is let off the hook.

On my way to the theatre I noticed a sign pinned to a lamppost just round the corner from the Bush, urging people not to let last week's attack in Woolwich damage a strong community. The streets in this area of London, as artistic director Madani Younis points out in his afterword to the play text, are "alive with the languages and garbs of a global community". Disgraced is certainly a timely comment on how global politics are played out in the day-to-day of city life.

It says a lot for Akhtar's skill as a playwright, and for the undoubted skill of the play's five actors, that the dynamic when the central couple are joined for dinner by Isaac (a lapsed Jew) and his African American wife Jory (Sara Powell), is completely engrossing - not pat. Akhtar's characters are not race-representatives or spokespeople, but are individuals shaped by the many forces at work in the post 9/11 American society, and that's what makes Disgraced such a powerful and intellectually-stimulating play.


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