A socially awkward young Muslim stalks the streets of a febrile European city, only hours after a failed car-bombing has exploded onto the news. He wears a bulky backpack. He regularly makes and takes phone calls. He moves with conspicuous deliberation. That’s the piercingly provocative portrait at the heart of Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s I Call My Brothers. It’s a play that delves behind prejudice to explore the impossible, paranoia-filled life of a Tunisian Arab living in Sweden.
It should be gripping. But it’s not. There’s scope for a gut-twistingly tense and fiercely political play in here somewhere, an electric shock awakening audiences to the realities of living as a Muslim in the western world. But, partly due to the shortfalls of Khemiri’s script (or perhaps of Rachel Willson-Broyles’s translation), partly due to an insubstantial central performance from Richard Sumitro, and partly due to Tinuke Craig’s direction (which aims at sophistication and lands on clunky-ness), I Call My Brothers never really gets there.
Sumitro is Amor, a lonely, possibly autistic, 20-something student, weighed down by family obligations and societal pressure to conform. He tells us his own story, narrating his actions on the day a failed terrorist attack scars his city and draws nascent Islamophobia to the surface. The history of his life – his lies and his loves – is supplied through a series of enacted phone conversations between him and the people important to him. There’s Shavi (Jonas Khan), an irrepressibly friendly and totally bored new dad. There’s Ahlem (Lanna Joffrey), his irritatingly fake cousin who’s just discovered her inner spirituality. And there’s Valeria (Nadia Albina), the love of his life, now married with kids.
The basic plot – Amor wandering his city, approaching and being approached by others – is similar in tone to Leo Butler’s Boy, which occupied the Almeida earlier this year. Elena Peña’s sound design, a persistent scape of traffic noise and city hum, bleeds through the action like the whine of an overhead airplane. Sumitro glances about the audience warily, hood up, shoulders hunched. Amor is posited as a very small boy at the mercy of an overwhelmingly large world. It’s not exactly riveting, but it’s powerfully evocative of a hostile climate.
But there’s a distinct failure to marry this surface tension with the slow-burning themes that ruminate underneath it. Amor’s day-to-day difficulties are compounded by the long-running traumas in his life – his rapidly changing friendship with Shavi, his dependent family, and his critical lack of romantic success with Valeria. Yet these factors, explored through a series of energetically performed phone chats, feel arbitrary at best, and completely disconnected from the rest of the story at worst. The result is a narrative that feels devoid of cohesive human drama, and a play that consistently sags with the weight of exposition. By the time Amor starts hallucinating a discussion with his dead grandma, the audience is entirely lost.
Amor is a chronically unreliable narrator, riven with paranoia and angst, but Sumitro supplies a well-adjusted, thoroughly likeable young man, and any sense of jeopardy or danger worked up by Craig’s direction is quickly dissipated.
Not that Craig’s direction works up much. It seems harsh to criticise a production that will undoubtedly get slicker over the course of the run, but at present there’s a glaring lack of polish. Craig has Sumitro stride about Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey’s sterile white set, and traps Khan, Joffrey and Albina in three glass phone booths behind him, from which they periodically escape to become part of the action. Charles Balfour’s lighting is abrupt and uncompromising in an effort to instill sharpness. Peña’s city soundscape occasionally crescendos into nothing. There’s a clear directorial emphasis on swiftness and sophistication. But when the cast garble lines and miss cues by half a beat, that lapses into unwieldy awkwardness.
Argh. There’s such potential here. Such an obvious opportunity in the basic premise for a superb, intense and challenging play. It is frustrating beyond words that I Call My Brothers doesn’t take it.
I Call My Brothers is on until 3rd December 2016 at the Gate Theatre. Click here for more details.