Prayers From the Dark
Rajiv Joseph's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
Old Fitz Theatre | Sydney
directed by Claudia Barrie
It is a prayer of anguish and pain. In addressing God, Rajiv Joseph offers a meditation on the biggest challenges faced by humankind at this moment in time, from perspectives personal and global. Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo talks about the ceaseless wars that take place in the middle east, and the sacrifices made to all lives no matter which side of the battle they reside. It also deals heavily with guilt and regret, universal experiences that allow audiences to relate even closer to its characters and stories.
The writing is emotional and imaginative, with ghosts and paranormal haunting the living, and troubling philosophy interrogating the dead. Having Americans and Iraqis at the centre of the action might allow Australian viewers to distance ourselves from its very difficult themes, but the production’s extraordinary intensity is determined to have us embroiled. It is powerful work by director Claudia Barrie, who invests great detail and dynamism into all facets of her show.
An unrelenting atmosphere of tension akin to horror movies and war zones, is marvellously established by a bevy of design talents. Nate Edmondson’s music in particular, impresses with its exceptional precision in calibrating tonal shifts, allowing us to flow with the play’s many surprising and contrasting moods, with no apparent effort at all. Lights are appropriately colourful for a show that revels in its hallucinations, with Benjamin Brockman’s robust approach providing excellent visual variety to a small and restrictive stage. Stephanie Howe’s costumes and Isabel Hudson’s set design are simple yet always effective and convincing, especially admirable considering the economy at which they operate.
An ensemble of seven remarkable actors perform an unforgettable show, each one commanding, with strong interpretations of their individual parts but beautifully cohesive as a whole. Andrew Lindqvist is stunning as Musa, demonstrating a level of authenticity that makes theatre pure magic. The kinds of torment being described is, to most of us, quite unimaginable, still Musa’s story is laid bare in front of us, entirely convincing and heartbreaking. It is in the way Lindqvist brings meaning to his lines and in the way his physicality manifests between those lines that the essence of suffering can be so clearly observed. His work is dramatic and breathtaking, but also profound in its subtle assertions. Josh Anderson and Stephen Multari play American soldiers, both engaging, and moving, with fascinating psychological complexities provide to what are usually reductive ways of portraying military personnel. The eponymous tiger is brought to life by Maggie Dence, who has a tendency to seem overly static, however, the quality of omniscience she brings is invaluable. Tyler De Nawi, Megan Smart and Aanisa Vylet are all given scene-stealing opportunities, and although their appearances are relatively brief, they each leave an indelible mark on this stage.
Maybe God does exist out there in the ether, or maybe we are all gods in the here and now. We can crane our necks and ask for answers, but we will never be absolved from doing the best to make the world a better place. We must try to figure things out ourselves, for as we see here, divine intervention never did arrive. For good to happen, it is only up to us, but evil is real, and in Bengal Tiger, it does not know itself. In the play’s pessimism, our actions result in harm, and civilisation is on a downward spiral, but it is a work of fantasy, and how we respond, is another one of its mysteries.
photo | ©Kate Williams