Cast: Tom Considine, Anupam Rao, directed by Max Gillies.
Discussion with cast, director and members of the audience
It’s not easy to do a reading we’re all familiar with and the difficulties of that but I hope and think we’ve got some idea of the piece and we don’t have to go another long session but I think in the context of the symposium and White With Wire Wheels and where we’ve been going, it would be nice to talk just a little bit before we go, about Alex Buzo and Norm and Ahmed. Does anybody have an immediate reaction?
I do. I’ve seen that play many times and I know it very well and it’s similar to what people were saying about White With Wire Wheels and Stretch of the Imagination that this play [Norm and Ahmed] still stands up. Someone was saying this morning that the reason why it still stands up is the mystery in the heart of Norm and Ahmed. And the mystery at the heart of this for me still, after knowing this play for so long, is when does Norm decide to attack Ahmed? There’s no easy answer to that.
There’s no easy answer but I think it’s at the moment when he does it.
You have this moment of incredible intimacy just before the end when you think that all the tension is gone.
I think that’s what specific about Buzo. It’s interesting that what it has in common with Jack’s plays and the other plays is the voice tearing the local vernacular. The way they hear is satirically. There is an attitude in the way they communicate their own culture.
But there’s something underneath that.
And I think Alex is doing something quite specific to do with Alex, rather than what all the other playwrights are doing. And that’s what makes these plays that are so good, continue to be interesting and have value. In this case I think it’s all about the confusion of Norm. He doesn’t know who he is or where he is and he has all these received opinions and mantras. We were talking about sexism and racism last night. The racism in this is disturbing. It’s hard to know how to respond to it. But these attitudes are in common with current views by public figures like Alan Jones towards the Cronulla situation. And this present Government’s values that are about setting tests for migrants. Norm says history is important but I don’t remember dates. Now history seems to be on about dates again. Norm is trying to put history into context and remember. So it’s about history and confusion and a vague understanding that there is history and that there is a context. There is also the sensitivity of the character and there’s a yearning as well. He doesn’t know whether it’s something he’s lost with Beryl or whether it’s a communal romantic bush life that he refers to at one stage.
He’s been given language to think with and he uses the language because he’s been taught it and that’s how he thinks but he doesn’t know what’s behind it. The other thing is that Ahmed is Alex Buzo. We used to say that, because he has a great Pakistani friend, it was based on an experience his friend told him, but it is Ahmed who is the outsider. This is him confronting an alien culture as a sensitive young man.
Well that makes sense because he wanted to learn. And I think he’s written the Anglo as an alien too and he doesn’t know where he is and he feels out of place but he’s been set up as a lonely person and he’s looking for some company or someone to relate to.
In Alex Buzo’s Norm and Ahmed and plays by Jack and others there is this wonderful avenue through the language to poetry, and an absolute brutality, a fearless facing down of brutality and I think that’s impressive. There’s brutality in Melbourne playwrights’ works. This is the specific thing that Alex Buzo does. I think it’s individual to him and isn’t it interesting too in terms of the issues of racism in Australia that there are two voices and two languages. There’s the covert racist language and there’s the public, ‘we all understand you, we’ll all be mates’ language. That interaction is always two-faced, it’s always ‘I, the Australian bloke, you’re alright mate, I’m alright mate and we’ll be mates’. It uses this repetitive set of mantras that would seem to establish a genuine egality that is part of the national ethos. The covert discourse is straight out racist discourse and it still remains today and I think that’s the frightening lesson from Cronulla.
That’s right. That radio broadcast of Alan Jones was just fanning the flames of the text messages in case anybody hadn’t yet received one.
But for a playwright Alex Buzo has taken this further than anyone would go today. As I looked around the audience, people looked shocked. It is so bold and so kind of excruciating in its racism and while it’s still there in our society, nobody would ever be prepared to represent it so starkly on stage today.
But its extraordinary strength is in a lot of its funniest lines and the juxtaposition of the most engaging lines and the most confronting material.
Then you think where is the engaging stuff coming from. Each line throws each earlier line into doubt doesn’t it?
Jack, you had something to say?
I’ve always thought there has been a strong undercurrent in the play of the homoerotic and I don’t know what people think but I think it’s obvious.
I haven’t seen it for absolutely ages and what struck me – and it’s visceral – was there is a sense of menace throughout, not just at that moment, and there is a kind of poignancy as well. Ahmed is locked into a form of discourse and as Norm hears it his anger flares up. There is the possibility maybe that perhaps they [Ahmed and Norm] can break through to an understanding but they can’t. They are completely locked into a discourse that is flaring up Norm’s violence.
Have you ever seen a cat tormenting a bird? Cats are incredibly cruel and Norm in a way is doing that to Ahmed.
Ahmed is too in his use of language.
That’s why I loved the way you played Ahmed, Anupam, because there was a real sense in your performance that you thought this guy was a fuckwit, even though you were calm.
So there’s a parallel with White with Wire Wheels. Helen is so quiet but so powerful. Same in this play with Ahmed. The language is so oblique.
It reminds me of the way Susie Dee tackled White With Wire Wheels so that there should be something you play with, which is the mystery of the play. The other thing that’s been alluded to over the last two days is the question of naturalism versus other kinds of theatricality. This to me is no more of a naturalistic play than White With Wire Wheels. That’s how you would get the most out of rehearsing, if you started with an idea that this wasn’t this fine brush stroke psychological exercise.
This is a kind of cockfight; it is a blood sport that we’re watching. I mean my thought is rather than it being… it’s an uncertainty that will be acted upon and it’s that impulse that stops in that grand stand off where he almost lets him pass which is completely arbitrarily as we discover after …
And of course the one direction that I didn’t read at the beginning is that Norm takes out a cigarette and lights it and there’s quite an elaborate scene and he goes to light it and decides not to and puts his lighter away… but we don’t know that.
Student in the audience (Eden Thomsen)
What I find incredible about this piece and I mean I’ve only read it and this is the first time I’ve actually seen it performed, is the representation of the relationship. For me I understand racism to be this extreme ignorance to begin with of the other, coupled with this aggressive unknowing of what we are dealing with, and it makes people fearful and extremely judgemental. But what I find incredible about this performance is that it thrusts these two different people into an intimate setting whereby they are presumably chatting as if they are acquaintances, and so that tension and mystery is constantly underlying, and you can feel the threat of ignorance lurching up in this guy’s language, and again language is such an important part of this play. Ahmed is so eloquent and it’s hilarious because here he is you know a supposed stranger in this western country, and yet he’s utilising language in this extraordinary way…
Which people did find amusing, the quaint formality of it. And the other thing is that he [Ahmed] knows his own mind, he is consistent in his critique of society. Not like Norm who is all over the place and is somehow authoritarian but also resentful of authority and loves ceremony.
Actor in the audience (Alex Pinder)
I’ve performed this play many times when I was a younger actor and I played Ahmed. And I loved your performance very much and it’s the first time I’ve ever seen it. I’ve performed to South-East Asian audiences at a conference in Hobart for Salamanca Theatre Company in 1978. And the thing was that it was never about Ahmed and the discussion afterwards was about why the hell did he stay? Why did he stay? Why the hell didn’t he get out of here? And subsequently I did it many other times at the Ensemble Theatre, and there is a film of it with Max Cullen and I. It’s about loneliness about two people who are very lonely and that’s why Ahmed stays, he wants a chat.
I think Ahmed stays because he is polite. He stays because he is lonely. He stays because it is not polite and it is contrary to his culture to be rude.
I favour the loneliness thing very much, but I would say he could quietly excuse himself. But this is quite a long encounter, the best part of an hour, and he doesn’t have to stay for an hour.
But Norm is so aggressive. All throughout. Ahmed tries to leave and make a polite excuse and Norm always makes him stay.
I’m sorry, I didn’t want us to have a long discussion and I’m sure we can continue this afterwards.
About the racism thing, rather than saying it’s ignorance, I think its much better to play it as finely honed knowledge. The decision about whether he’s going to get violent is entirely up to the actor but I feel that the racism is inherent and is absolutely finessed. Norm isn’t ignorant all. As Adrian has mentioned, it’s a blood sport …He doesn’t have to attack this guy but he will attack someone. It’s not the fruit of ignorance at all; it’s the fruit of knowledge.
Perhaps it’s the ignorance of Ahmed’s specific culture, I mean, referring to him as a member of the subcontinent, Asia, like that’s ignorance, not asking him the questions about Pakistan.
From Norm’s point of view, once he’s got him characterised within the frame, ignorance, knowledge doesn’t matter. It’s an instinctive reaction. I prefer to play it that the violence happens when they shake hands. When he sees that hand coming in contact with him and the colour, the reptile brain kicks in and off he goes. And look, Alex would know this, you can play it…
You can play in so many ways, in endless ways, yeah. And it is a classic and the thing is that Alex Buzo did write the other version with Norman and Tuan. Back in 1988 we were filming it and he had the idea then of doing Norman and Tuan and I said to him, but that’s going to put me out of a job! But he had the idea then.
They did it at La Mama.
They did it at La Mama, yeah. Which was great and it was very interesting to watch that again because he was very much a Vietnam vet and…
But it’s a totally new script? I mean it’s the same structure exactly but … the dialogue has been completely redone.
A group is currently rehearsing Norman and Ahmed in Sydney, Alex Buzo’s daughter has founded a company, so they are putting this other play on and this is exactly what he has done, he has actually merged the two plays, well not exactly, it is Norman and Ahmed, but the war is not…
Max Gillies invites Anupam Rao to comment on his characterisation of Ahmed.
I mean I’m not Pakistani but I came here when I was seven or eight but I still learnt English in India and even my handwriting is much more cursive, and there are little things like that. You also mention the citizenship test. Norm’s character, he represents Australian ideals in kind of a weird sort of way because Australian values according to Norm are the kind of thing that a white Australian male at that time would have referred to, like world wars and mateship. It’s not like Australians and Australia has a monopoly on mateship which is synonymous with camaraderie and that’s in every culture and like it’s not uniquely Australian. So that’s what stirred me up a little bit, but it doesn’t matter, it’s still pretty fine. So in that sense the citizenship test in itself …but that’s another story.
The discussion focussed on whether Ahmed stayed out of loneliness or politeness. Why do you think as the performer that the character stayed?
Well it’s probably a mixture of those facts. I’m not quite sure if you know this, but Ahmed tries to get away but Norm’s grip is there, and I mean, in all politeness, you can’t really leave. Physically you can’t leave when someone is holding your hand. So then you are kind of forced to stay. And he does get interested in the conversation and maybe there is a bit of loneliness in Ahmed and in Norm as well.
And there’s Ahmed’s interest in human behaviour and psychology which gives an insight as well, that he’s, you know, interested in Norm’s life in general.
I can see that but in terms of when Norm decides to make the attack, I guess Ahmed stays out of a mixture of politeness and he’s kind of interested. From my experience I think that maybe Norm… I don’t know, I’m not quite sure why, but particularly with that lighter thing, he asks me for some matches and I’m searching around for matches, but even then I’m hesitant to give them to him because I’ve got half a mind to go, but then I think no, this is the right thing to do. Then halfway through the play Norm says have a cigarette and I think, oh, he’s got a lighter. Up until that time I’m comfortable staying there but then I’m sort of thinking of ways to get out I suppose. But Norm just captures me in some way and I can’t go anywhere.
It’s a play that just lives, don’t you think? Thank you both very much for your performances and the audience for the discussion.