Monday, February 24, 2014

Jump for Jordan

Photo by Brett Boardman
Griffin theatre Company presents the World Premiere of JUMP FOR JORDAN by Donna Abela at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross.

JUMP FOR JORDAN by Donna Abela is having its World Premiere season for the Griffin Theatre Company. The core of any successful artistic endeavour is, usually, sprung from the life of the artist - all the artists, ultimately, but always with that of the writer, to start with, in the performing arts. Add Imagination and Research and a play on the page evolves. Add the collaboration of Actors, Designers and a Director, and finally an Audience - a different one every night -  and an experience will be staged, and absorbed from that original source, the WRITER. 

Ms Abela comes from a Maltese family and she talks in her program notes: 
Not uncommonly, I am a stranger to half of my heritage. My father's first language was foreign to my ears. He wanted me to be bound by codes that weren't entirely from here. I had scattered facts about his homeland, fragments of family history, and an unutterable awareness that the wake of war and trauma was still washing through the house. Born in Sydney, I grew up living with a divide, without the full story, and in danger of filing cultural and family vacuums with ignorance, assumptions or racist invention.
How many of us have grown up around friends, the daughters and sons, the second generation of refugees and immigrants, and had to watch them, untangle the demands of the parents' old traditions, and that of being part of contemporary Australia? Personally, many friends from many countries of European strictures (Greece, Malta, Italy), the Middle East (Lebanon, Egypt, Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan) and Asia (Vietnam, China, Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Philippines), let alone with my Indigenous and South Pacific companions and collaborators, or my South American and Afro-American acquaintances - the list, it seems can go on and on, is endless. The journeys I have had with them, coming from my long time English/Irish/Australian generational heritage/prejudice has been a wild, and sometimes sombre roller coaster of learning and confrontation. I took for granted, for a long time, that my upbringing was the same as theirs. Ignorance allowed a kind of blissful state! Ignorance, galore, on my part, indeed. I discovered, slowly, that it was not only their food that was different.

Iain Sinclair uses a quotation from LP Hartley's THE GO-BETWEEN, to begin his notes to his production: "The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there." This play is an attempt to bring to the stage an experience that two such young persons, brought up, essentially in Sydney, two young women, Loren (Sheridan Harbridge) and, especially, Sophia (Alice Ansara) have, in dealing with the 'politics' of their parents and their extended family: Sahir, dad from Palestine (Sal Sharah), Mara, mum from Amman in Jordan (Doris Younane), and a visiting aunt, Azza from Jordan (Camilla Ah Kin), who were torn apart in the internal commotion of that country's upheavals in the 1940's. In Campbelltown where this family ends up they all discover that they do, indeed, do things differently, here.

Sophie, the 'heroine' of this play is a would-be archaeologist (still studying, with difficulty at Uni.) and the play sifts through shifting layers of past and present, farce and fantasy. It is Sophie's 'mad, messy excavation of her own history, and her attempt to piece together the broken bits of her identity'. Ms Abela tells us: 
The play is constructed like a disturbed archaeological dig site which has collapsed together layers of reality, memory, projection and conversations with the dead.
Sophie talks to her dead dad, we see projections of the angry response that Mara has to her new home provided by her husband in Campbelltown, we have visions of Aunt Azza as an avenging 'angel' of jihad proportions, whilst after meeting her in the flesh of reality as a contemporary woman, turns out to be, perhaps, the most balanced and progressive member of the family.

The play is funny, melancholic, and, best of all, empathetically informative of what, I have come to know to be traumatic cultural and social adjustments, for all, in those families. It is the first time that I have witnessed such lives on our stages, so vividly. The structures in the writing, of quick short scenes set in the past and present, hither and thither in location, of conversations with a ghost, projections of exaggerated, comic figures of terrorism, heartfelt romances of aspiration, and bitter, bitter angers- are all juggled wonderfully by Ms Abela with swift tonal shifts of mood daringly juxtaposed. The writing is terrific and has the pulse of the fast world of new media interaction.

Maybe, too fast, for on the night I saw Mr Sinclair's production, I was lost in the frenetic pacing of the early scenes - I was left bewildered as to 'what was happening', 'who was who'. The first short scene erupted in a commotion of shouting and action, overloaded with sound - so many 'offers' going on I couldn't locate the sense of the play.  I felt the production began at seventy miles per hour and I had to spend several scenes chasing the 'train',  to comprehend the dramaturgical audacities of the 'lay out ' of the writing, before I could get, comprehensively, "on board'. Talking to some others, later, in the audience, mine was not a unique experience.

Ms Abela as part of her Production Notes to the published text warns her collaborators :"... Attention must be on context as well as content." The first scene unfolds in the present and the past with three characters - one in both time zones. In the experience of the production there was no 'context' signalled for us, the audience, to 'read', and no 'content' able to be heard. One didn't know where to JUMP FOR JORDAN. Maybe, it was first night jitters, for gradually, I did catch up. But quiz me about the context and content of the early scene or three and I could not tell you anything, but approximate gist. A residual uncertainty, unfortunately, stayed with me throughout the night - I never became completely immersed.

All the performances are good. Ms Harbridge giving her usual highly intelligent and wickedly clever, comic 150% - taking her Loren to an edge, but always staying on the right side of it for us to believe, both stylistically and naturalistically;  a moving dance in the time journeying of Mara from one emotional world to another by Ms Younane; and a charming 'goofy' offer by Ms Ansara as Sophie, attempting to keep all her worlds in the air, without dropping one or the other, or, one for the other. Anna Houston as the only non-arab in this play provides a gentle and warm touchstone for us, as Mr Sinclair calls us: 'skips', while Ms Ah Kin is outrageous as the imagined 'terrorist', Aunt Azza, and Mr Sharah, with gentle dignity and simpleness, provides a keel, an emotional centre to the story, as the nature/plant loving father figure, Sahir.

The Set Design of an outer suburban living room, invaded by the sands of either country, Jordan or Campbelltown (although the soils of Campbelltown are fairly fertile and not sandy at all - the familiar beige carpet being piled with sand may represent another kind of metaphorical 'desert'), by Pip Runciman, works well with the Lighting Design, by Nicholas Rayment, helping to demarcate context for the audience in the pell mell of the demand of the production and writing. But I wondered – was there too much sound coming from the work of the Composer and Sound Design of Nate Edmondson? 

JUMP FOR JORDAN represents a new, original and confident voice, that is comically optimistic in its breadth of vision, with some wisdoms of insights of a lived experience for all of us to embrace. This is the first play of the new season for the Griffin and one hopes a harbinger to the quality of writing and subject matter to come. The first of Lee Lewis' first season as independent Artistic Director of Griffin.

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