★★★★½ A deeply affecting and sensitively realised account of this important text about sexuality.

Gasworks Arts Park, Melbourne
January 22, 2016

Of the range of human emotions a person might leave a theatre feeling, ashamed is possibly one of the rarest. Yet this was the unshakable mental state I was left with following Lab Kelpie productions’ arresting staging of British playwright Douglas Rintoul’s Elegy.

This one-act solo, devised in 2011, tells the story of a gay man in Iraq, as the disintegration of his country following the invasion of foreign troops has allowed militant elements to transform his home from a place of safety to one of horrifying violence and imminent death. He relates his first tentative steps exploring his sexuality, and falling in love for the first time, but this gentle nostalgia is short lived. As his friends – other gay men – are tortured, mutilated and brutally murdered, he attempts to flee to the safety of the west, only to be met with apathy and hostility towards refugees.

There is a muted sophistication to this exceptionally powerful text, and this production has been carefully considered to create a versatile and viscerally persuasive environment that also never attempts to compete with the dialogue. On a concrete slab, cracked and exposing a rusted metal grate beneath, Nick Simpson-Deeks is prone on the stage as the audience enter. Rob Sowinksi’s set is evocative of both the rubble of this character’s war-torn home and the cold institutionalism of a refugee deportation centre. The cleverly nuanced lighting design, supported by Russell Goldsmith’s subtle soundscapes, also helps delineate the shifting locations as the narrative skips forward and back through time.

John Kachoyan has kept his direction as discreet as possible; the flow of the action is instinctive yet fine-tuned to enhance our understanding of the text’s jumbled timeline and the ingenuity of its structure. Simpson-Deeks, as a white-Australian, at first, feels like an incongruous choice for the sole actor sharing this story about the Middle East, but this casting is strategic.

The narrative is recounted as an anecdote, some distant event, perhaps read about in a newspaper and then immediately forgotten. Yet this direct link to our local culture via Simpson-Deeks unveils the unignorable humanity of this true story. When a subtle shift in pronouns occurs at the apex of the narrative, the impact of this switch travels a direct conduit to the audience. It’s a moment of astonishing, profoundly arresting power.

Elegy is a work of real importance, and yes, it provokes a deep, penetrating feeling of shame, but the reason isn’t just because the details of this story are harrowing in the extreme. This play was written five years ago, based on interviews with gay Iraqi refugees, desperate to escape the mass killings in their homeland. Five years later, in 2016, gay men in the Middle East are still in mortal danger, tortured, maimed and thrown from tall buildings as the preferred method of execution by the Islamic State. And yet, our privileged, safe, democratic western culture is as unwelcoming to refugees as when Elegy was first penned.

Exposing truths as appalling and relevant as those illuminated in this play is at the heart of what great theatre should strive to achieve. This play connects us, on a level that transcends nationality, to an unimaginable situation, and thus we should feel shaken and confronted and propelled into action. Yes, this play made me feel ashamed, but I feel deeply grateful for that.

Lab Kelpie present the Australian premiere of Elegy, at the Gasworks Arts Park until February 6, part of 2016 Midsumma Festival.

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