Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Norm and Ahmed


Norm and Ahmed by Alex Buzo.  Riverside Theatre, Parramatta (Sydney), November 15 – 20, 2021.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
November 15

Laurence Coy as Norm
Rajan Velu as Ahmed

Creative Team
Production Director – Aarne Neeme
Associate Director – Terence Clarke
Lighting Designer – Lucia Haddad
Stage Manager & Production Manager – Emma Paterson
Producers – Grant Dodwell, Peter Hiscock & Raj Sidhu
Associate Producers – Lucy Clements & Emma Wright
Publicity – Sean Landis
Photographer – Becky Matthews

Norm and Ahmed at Riverside still stirs the melting pot after 50 years.

When nascent playwright Alex Buzo returned to his Sydney flat from the pub late one
night in 1969, the phone rang. It was the artistic director of a Queensland theatre
company. The Vice Squad were threatening to have one of the actors in “Norm and
Ahmed” arrested for using obscene language. The next night, the actor was arrested
and charged, as were others involved in productions around the country, igniting a
much-publicised campaign against censorship that spanned three states and ended in
the Supreme Court in 1970. In a 2005 television interview, Buzo said:

“my aim as a writer was to put Australian drama on the front page. I didn't anticipate this
sort of front page treatment but, I thought it did have a good result in the sense that
people knew that Australian drama was alive and well, whereas up until that point it had
no publicity whatsoever...I'd be disappointed if people didn't think the play had
something to say about racism and generational envy...it is a literary play, it is an art play,
it's meant to be humorous and imaginative, it's meant to have other things going for it
other than the final two words.”
Emma Buzo [ https://www.alexbuzo.com.au/downloads/files/NormTeaching09.pdf ]

In her 2009 Teaching Notes, Emma Buzo also records:
When it was produced in Sydney in 2007, director Aarne Neeme set the action in the
present day, merely changing Norm from a WWII veteran to a Vietnam veteran and giving Ahmed a backpack instead of a briefcase.


Laurence Coy as Norm
Rajan Velu as Ahmed

In 2010, Norm and Ahmed became a Higher School Certificate study text.  Last night there clearly were students making up a fair proportion of the audience, so my focus is on the production as a “literary play…an art play”.  But it’s still a play of theatrical impact.

It’s fair to refer back to the original production which I saw at the Old Tote at University of New South Wales, which I believe police attended with a threat of possible arrest for foul language (unless my octogenarian memory has confused me with the Queensland episode).  It’s the power of the drama in the real world which is my concern.

I hadn’t seen the play since 1968, so I was surprised to hear Norm’s story of fighting in Vietnam.  In 1968 it was obvious that Norm was bull-shitting in calling himself a “Rat of Tobruk”, pretending to the naïve Pakistani student that he, Norm, had such iconic standing in Australia’s history.  When this speech was about Vietnam, although Norm was obviously and improperly boasting, because the play (in 2021) is clearly set in the past, it seemed he could have been there with such aggressively awful racist views.  He simply became a rat.

Go to Trove in the National Library to find the digital copy of the original script to see, and understand the difference between World War II and the Vietnam War.  Young people last night could have treated Norm as genuine, even though he ended up boasting a bit too much.

On this point and elsewhere in Coy’s performance of Norm, it was too often possible for us in the audience to find some sympathy for Norm.  In Ron Hadrick’s day as Norm, the serious foreboding menace from the very beginning, asking Ahmed for a light – after just having stamped his own cigarette out – was unrelenting.  In this presentation, for example, Norm could have been genuine in suggesting Ahmed go to a club to mix socially.  In fact, of course, he knew he was very deliberately suggesting Ahmed go into a terrible threatening situation.

Now I come to the literary-art play question.  In 1968 it was obvious that Alex Buzo, and surely Ron Hadrick, were under the influence – for the right reason – of the great British playwright Harold Pinter.  Wikipedia records:

The Birthday Party (1957) is the first full-length play by Harold Pinter. It is one of his best-known and most frequently performed plays.

In the setting of a rundown seaside boarding house, a little birthday party is turned into a nightmare when two sinister strangers arrive unexpectedly. The play has been classified as a comedy of menace, characterised by Pinteresque elements such as ambiguous identity, confusions of time and place, and dark political symbolism.

The essence of Pinter’s dramatic technique was to build in pause…after pause…after pause.  In the often long pauses, the audience hears what’s been said and then goes on to imagine what the meaning is supposed to be, coming from the speaker who paused, and being understood – or not – by the person spoken to.  The effect, even though the characters do nothing physical to attack each other, is a building sense of menace until violence is inevitable.

In Laurence Coy’s presentation of Norm, he was too voluble, the lines coming without the building up of threatening pauses – in which the audience bit by bit feel they have to be on Ahmed’s side, even though on the surface Norm has done little (beyond a few little things) which are seriously violent.  Until the last line, where the foul language and violent action come together.

I noticed that the running time last night was quite a bit shorter than I was expecting.  I think the full use of Pinteresque pauses would have added maybe ten minutes to the 45 minutes the play ran.  Whether this was a directorial matter, or a first night effect for the actors, I can’t say.  Of course, the acting in itself was excellent – but I have to say violence at the end in 1968 was a huge frightening shock.

This Norm and Ahmed is certainly well worth seeing because the play is still relevant – perhaps even more so compared with 50 years ago as our multicultural society has become more complex and issues of individual rights are prominent on social media as well as in daily life.  The line which highlights racism comes when Norm taunts Ahmed, saying he isn’t really black, but could get on well in this country because he might – just – pass as white!

Norm and Ahmed by Alex Buzo: Norm's claim to be
"one of the rats of Tobruk"
Digitised original script at Trove, National Library, Australia