Written and directed by Bijan Sheibani, The Arrival is currently performing at the Bush Theatre.
This is a very powerful play that typifies the sentiments of rejection, loss, heartbreak and trauma. It addresses the [ideological] importance of family, of togetherness and compassion, but, more importantly, of identity and of knowing and appreciating oneself.
It is not immediately clear to the audience as to what the premise of Tom (Scott Karim) and Samad’s (Irfan Shamji) relationship is, and this is something I find both admirable and irksome about this play. This fact adds, of course, an intrigue and uniqueness to the text, forcing the audience to apply themselves to the narrative to work out what exactly is transpiring between these characters before them. However, there is a danger with this particular text that the absence of context may make the text too esoteric. Whilst characters are attempting to bond with one another, our lack of context means that we overlook a lot of important first interactions, seeing items such as Tom’s white strand of hair, for example, as quirky and ignorable. This limits our initial reading of the characters and causes us to lose out on quite a lot of the plot’s development. When we find that Tom is slowly being distanced from Samad, the impact is then less powerful, for we do not feel too strong a sense of loss, having not built an especially strong sense of their relationship and the particularity of their intimacy.
I found the writing to be particularly repetitive at first, with the dominant structure being as follows: one character asks a brief question, the other says, "Yeah," and this repeats again and again. This follows a specific and overplayed current trend in contemporary writing and lacks both flavour and originality. This structure is repeated far too often, dampening the text considerably. There is also a lack of specificity in some areas; for example, Tom’s fixation on genetics seems rather more like a projection from the views of an outsider on adoption as opposed to an adopted individual. It is also not particularly evidenced, and hence rather unclear, as to why Samad and Tom become distanced in such an extreme way. One could imagine that Tom became rather obsessive and overwhelmed Samad and his family, and yet it seems that they are all so fond of him, Samad even worrying about what Tom’s parents thought of him. This transition needs to be clearer; otherwise, it goes from training in the park together, Tom massaging Samad’s legs, and the two meeting each other’s families, to the two beating each other up outside of Samad’s wedding from which Tom was essentially excluded, and this seems a rather extreme shift.
There is, of course, an element to this absence of information regarding Samad distancing Tom that allows us to see all of this from Tom’s perspective, which is quite effective. We are as shocked and bewildered as him. However, I feel that this said implication is too minimal to justify this. Elsewhere, the absence of certain items does seem to benefit this play, such as the absence of other characters and set pieces, drawing extreme focus onto nothing but the two characters themselves. This restriction of what we are presented beyond Tom and Samad is translated into all aspects of the performance, including music, costume, props and movement. Props are only utilised when essential –– when it is impossible to mime [without being laughable] riding a bicycle, for example –– and this makes for a stylistic consistency, where mime is integral and props are a last resort. With a simple addition of club music and a gesture suggestive, for instance, of holding a glass, this performance is successful in casting our imagination to various locations.
Movement becomes integral to this performance, and the space itself soon bares its own kinetosphere, with physicality becoming particularly energised and with movements extending off stage and out towards the audience. The characters exercise upon the stage and run and bike-ride around its perimeters. This gives us a sense of motion, rhythm and dimension. Despite being such a large and vacuous space, there is still a sense of containment and hence intimacy. This is emphasised when one character is left alone, or when the two stand or sit close to one another, creating their own, narrow interstices within such an expansive space.
Another manner in which this sense of intimacy is created is through the actors’ mirroring of one another. This, however, I find to be most tiresome. Of course, this communicates a sense of familiarity, connecting the two individuals not only in their feelings during the discovery of one another but also in the fact that they are family, as we see that the two share behaviours and articulate their emotions in identical ways, especially in the scene wherein the two demonstrate their anger, take off their shirts and throw them to the ground, all in a boisterous rage. Yet, all of this is not particularly a unique method of storytelling, and with the text being so evocative of that aforementioned contemporary writing trend, the dramatic text, again, loses a sense of uniqueness and personality.
In a similar way, movements (directed by Aline David) become very repetitive and lacklustre. It soon becomes evident that there is a limited amount of positions and arrangements that the two can assume, of activities that the two can perform. Shamji’s go-to action seems to become to tie his shoelaces, and acts like these become monotonous to watch. It is rather conspicuous that Sheibani is aware of this sense of repetition and stagnancy in the movement and is attempting to work some variation into it, particularly during the scene involving the bicycle, where Shamji walks around the perimeters of the circular platform, with Karim walking beside him but upon the rotating stage. The two regularly swap places, jumping around each other, swapping directions. It looks…messy. There is a lack of topography as Karim cuts through the diameter of the platform to meet again with a running Shamji or when the two have been going around in circles incessantly for around ten minutes.
I would urge Sheibani not to be afraid of stillness, for this can add a particularity and unique articulacy to a text when the text is composed of but nothing else. If the scene if boring, it is not because there is not enough spectacularity but because of the quality and intrigue of the writing. In this scene, I would have preferred the stage to rotate at just the right speed so that the two characters end up walking beside each other considerably fast yet end up covering very little distance. A sort of treadmill effect. Ideally, this treadmill-ing would cease at the end of the scene, when the two will have completed a full circle.
Finally, the design of the set (by Samal Blak). Simplistic to the eye yet very technically intricate, this set design is a very brave one. As alluded to earlier, the stage consists essentially of a rotating platform, leaving a rather tight portion of the floor below around its circumference. The vast majority of the action takes place upon this platform. This is particularly effective in demonstrating a fragility between the two characters, having their relationship play out upon, visually speaking, unbalanced ground, seemingly high up from our perspective as seated spectators. It also, of course, creates a sense of a change in location in its movements but also a change in mood, implied by the speed at which the platform rotates. A most dynamic and intelligent design.
To conclude, this is a very enjoyable performance, but it follows far too many trends in modern theatre, from structures in text to storytelling techniques in performance, and thus becomes somewhat bland and uninspired, despite material being resonant and powerful. I would urge Sheibani to reconsider not only this but the fluidity and congruity of his text as well, how the plot progresses from one major event to another and how this is portrayed. Overall, communication is not this performance's strongpoint.