Entertainment

   

Speak English or Die

Posted by Seanna van Helten

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August 19, 2012
8:00 am

La Mama Theatre is currently showing two productions that address a cultural divide between an Anglo and a migrant Australia. While Reg Cribb’s Unaustralia concentrates on the 2005 Cronulla Riots, Jeremy Johnson’s focus in Speak English or Die, a new work directed by Sara Tabitha Catchpole, is more domestic.

On one side of this divide are Mouche (Georgia Kelly) and her family and friends, and on the other, a young Muslim man named Ali (Danny Ball). Mouche and her friend Naomi (Phoebe Taylor) own a homewares shop that specialises in Middle Eastern trinkets. When Ali is contracted as an electrician to repair the shop’s wiring, the owners are by turns intrigued and wary. Mouche’s theologist father (Chris Gaffney) happily banters with him about the existence of God, but Mouche herself is keen to defend Australian liberties, such as her right as an Australian woman to choose “between wearing a bikini thong or a burqa.”

At its best, the dialogue illuminates these and other debates on cultural identity and how it intersects with a national one in modern Australia. Certainly, theatre is one place where these ideas can be explored. But the particular scenario of Speak English or Die does not handle this debate with much sophistication. Sensing a physical attraction between Mouche and her handsome Muslim electrician, Naomi goads her friend into a bet: seduce the soon-to-be-married Ali and Naomi will hand over her shares of the business.

The fallout of this wager dominates the final act, but it is never made clear why Naomi would make such a bizarre proposition. If there is a subtext to her motivations, it is lost in the largely caricatured portrayal of Naomi as a self-righteous bigot.

A sensitive grasp of the complexities of multiculturalism is evident in Johnson’s writing, but is undone by this and other uneven characterisations. Mouche and Ali are the most complexly drawn roles, as they grapple with a mutual physical attraction but philosophical incompatibility. This provides actors Kelly and Ball with a contradiction to explore, whereas the other characters seem directionless.

In this “non-love story” (as the director describes it) all five characters are revealed as deeply flawed, selfish and self-absorbed. If this is a snapshot of contemporary, multicultural Australia, the view is rather bleak.

Speak English or Die is playing at La Mama Theatre until August 19.
For more information and tickets visit
www.lamama.com.au.


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