Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney
April 6, 2018

For an adaptation of a work that saw its writer exiled by Stalin, Eamon Flack’s Sami in Paradise feels curiously unsubversive. Flack (who also directs) has transplanted Nikolai Erdman’s 1928 farce The Suicide from Soviet Russia to a modern day refugee camp, exploring the human foibles of its inhabitants as they try to eke out a life that feels satisfying despite its stasis. It tells the story of Sami, whose decision to commit suicide is hijacked by a bevy of individuals who’d quite like to claim his death for their own pet causes. A premise that holds a great deal of potential, it’s unfortunately never fulfilled in Flack’s adaptation, which fails to carry over Erdman’s humanist vein and attention to character.

Yalin Ozucelik and Paula Arundell. All photos © Clare Hawley

Flack has assembled a game cast of 11, and all bring a lot of energy to proceedings. But the first act, this production’s weakest half, sees nearly all of them deliver at the same relentless high pitch, which wears thin after 20 minutes and leaves a significant amount of dialogue completely unintelligible. Many laugh lines and comic bits also fail to land, and character is sacrificed for a breakneck pace that ironically creates serious longueurs.

The subtler performances (although it’s all relative in a play with comedy as broad as this) are therefore balm for the weary soul. Paula Arundell, always a joy, gives us two nicely delineated characters: raspy Fima, mother in law to the eponymous Sami, and Fairuz, who demands he kill himself for love of her. Fayssal Bazzi is a convincing Abu Walid, providing one of the production’s most grounded performances, while Charlie Garber gets to deliver some of the best lines as a frighteningly flippant aid worker.

The cast of Sami in Paradise

Although Flack’s penchant for slapstick over character hinders everyone’s characterisations, Yalin Ozucelik manages to invest his Sami with just the right amount of sensitivity and beleaguerment. He attains greater heights in the play’s more effective second half, particularly when he fails over and again to kill himself, descending into a desperate, childish mania that feels believable.

Some of the actors simply can’t rise above what they’ve been given and how they’ve been directed – Victoria Haralabidou’s Maria is merely put upon and no more, while Vaishnavi Suryaprakash’s big speech about education for young girls strikes neither a comic nor serious tone, falling flat.

The cast of Sami in Paradise

What is effective is Dale Ferguson’s clever set and costumes, appropriately piecemeal and telling the story often more effectively than the script. Meanwhile, Jethro Woodward has devised a wonderfully evocative score in collaboration with musicians Mahan Ghobadi and Hamed Sadeghi.

But despite everyone’s best efforts, long passages of this production feel unfocused. We never fully feel, as we should, the currents of despair and frustration lurking beneath these refugees’ make-do exteriors. The play’s conclusion, which should move if not devastate, goes for very little. And the underlying horror of those jockeying to claim Sami’s suicide as their own? It’s never realised in an effective way, instead swallowed up by much stage action that overwhelms and then exhausts.

Sami in Paradise plays at Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, until April 29


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