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Monday 5 November 2018

Disgraced (Geächtet), by Ayad Akhtar directed by Tina Lanik, Burgtheater Vienna, (in German translation from the American Original), 7* out of 10

Producing "Disgraced" in a German version is challenging regarding casting and linguistic characteristics, as the play's plot centers around place, time and the ethnic identities of its protagonists. The straightforward Burgtheater production suffers somewhat from this and from imperfect acoustics. Nevertheless, the ensemble acting was competent throughout and "Geächtet" can be recommended to native German-speaking theatergoers who feel uncomfortable with watching a straight play in English. 

Manhattan 2011. Amir Kapoor (Fabian Krüger) American born with roots in the Indo/Pakistani subcontinent is a high earning and successful senior business lawyer on partner track in a New York law firm with exclusively Jewish name partners. Brought up in a strict version of Sunni Islam and a heavy dose of Jew-hatred by his mother, he has decided to leave Islam and change his original family name of Abdullah (Muslim) to Kapoor (which can be Hindu or even Sephardic Jewish). Amir is married to the WASP artist Emily who draws her artistic inspiration from the medievally enlightened Islamic sources in Spain and North Africa. Amir’s female black work colleague Jory (Isabelle Redfern) is married to liberal Midwest born Jewish gallery owner Isaac (Nicholas Ofczarek). Emily hopes that in his next exhibition, Isaac will include some of her latest works. As the action evolves, Amir will increasingly be confronted with issues in his professional and private life against a background of the post-9/11 identity politics in America. Amir’s cultural adaptations will be put to a severe stress test as some bad weeks at work and at home culminate in a disastrous small dinner party in whose course conversation about religion and politics followed by revelations concerning Amir’s professional and private lives have dramatic consequences. 

In the tradition of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf”, and Yasmina Reza’s “The Gods of Carnage” (Les Dieux du Carnage), Ayad Akhtar’s multi-award-winning drama poses the question of whether the statement “you can take the boy out of Pakistan, but you cannot take Pakistan out of the boy” was true in post 9/11 liberal wealthy New York society under President Obama. The playwright answers this question by holding a mirror to the smug, self-satisfied liberal America which has built a veneer of identity-politics-based tolerance. Is it a faux-tolerance which covers up suspicion and resentment towards Middle Easterners bubbling underneath? The American 9/11 post-traumatic stress syndrome is (still) very much at work here. Amir’s defensive armour which he has constructed to adapt to the demands made upon a successful Manhattan business lawyer on the partner track has been tested to the limit by 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan. It is cruelly sliced and diced by his professional colleagues, private acquaintances and nearest family. Stripped down to his core identity he reacts strongly and the situation escalates.

Disgraced is a rather dark and pessimistic about the presumed melting pot that New York is often seen to be and the high-handed, high-earning highly educated Obama-Clinton voters who inhabit it. In the process, it demonstrates the limits of political correctness. 

In the Burgtheater the set and the direction (Tina Lanik) are uncomplicated. The acoustics are somewhat challenging in that parts of the conversation on the stage is at times barely audible when it comes from towards the back of the stage or when an actor is facing away from the audience. The acting is competent. Nicholas Ofczaerek who has the most thankful role of the double-dealing gallery owner Isaac makes the most of it.

The translation of the play from American English into German by Barbara Christ is good, except perhaps the title: the English "disgraced" is translated as the German word for "ostracised", “geächtet”. 

Although a native German speaker, I found watching a quintessentially New York play quite difficult to follow and get into. I believe, this is mainly due to the ethnic identities of the characters being central to the plot: it took me a while to figure out that the main character was supposed to be of parents who came to the United States from the Indian subcontinent. At least he had dark hair; his supposedly Pakistani nephew looked altogether white and blond; I even initially missed that Jory was black, but that was me – the role is cast with a black (or mixed-race) actress. 

For me, therefore, the play had an effect not unlike watching an American movie in a dubbed version – somehow things don’t quite fit together and one is not quite captured by the action on stage. This is not something that happens with all translated plays. Yasmina Reza’s conversation-plays, for instance, work nearly as well in the translations as in the original (probably because place and ethnic identity are not key in her plots).

Therefore, I would say if you are a native German speaker who does not feel comfortable seeing straight plays in English “Geächtet” at the Burgtheater is a worthwhile play to go and see. If you feel comfortable with watching a play in the English original, you may want to watch it in the English original if the opportunity presents itself. In the light of the changeover from Obama to Trump and all this entails for liberal attitudes and political correctness the play may seem a bit dated already. In my view, Mohsin Hamid’s novel “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” remains an unmatched treatment of the subject.

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