The pandemic was undoubtedly a difficult time in Melbourne, and there’s no shortage of artists using this period as fuel for their creations.
Less documented, however, is the effect of this isolation on those marginalised by society. I Said This To the Bird isn’t your familiar pandemic-era story of masks and vaccinations – it’s a gritty piece of Gorky-esque social realism glimpsing at the effects of loneliness on recently arrived asylum seekers and refugees.
Four strangers, all recent Iranian refugees, congregate in the hall of a migrant resource centre in Melbourne, bonding over their anxieties, hopes and experiences, and leaving as friends by the end of the play. Four mismatched wooden chairs and an old coffee table evoke the transient, unwelcoming migrant resource centre, a frame at the back right of the stage cleverly used as a window.
Performed entirely in Farsi, the piece allows these displaced and othered members of society to express their perspective on their terms and thus it powerfully destabilises the notion of assimilation, demanding that we as the audience bridge the gap to understanding.
It’s familiar territory for writer and director Dr Mammad Aidani, a visiting fellow at the Institute of Postcolonial Studies where the play was first performed. It’s commendable to see Aidani take this decision with the production – it’s exactly the challenge to the establishment we need from the voices we need to hear, and it’s promising to see an entirely non-English production with early-career performers programmed on the mainstage of one of Melbourne’s premiere independent theatre venues, La Mama Courthouse.
Though resounding as a social statement, I Said This to the Bird doesn’t always deliver dramatically, however. Aidani’s script has moments of stirring, lyrical description, but sadly tends towards dense philosophising, meaning the four actors must work hard to inject feeling into their words.
While it gives the performances room to breathe, the show’s slow pacing doesn’t do any favours for this heaviness, and some of the performances need modulation and variety. Sepideh Karimi’s performance as Sara is an example, delightfully combative in back-and-forth conversation, but losing detail in some of the major monologues. Faraz Safari commands a quiet power as Arjang, silent for much of the show, but loses some of this influence when made to bellow rants.
However, Mohammad (Ramin) Montazeri Kordi shines as Wahid, balancing tragedy and levity in a heartfelt performance that transcends language. Reza Kaviani brings equal sincerity as the afflicted Noshan, delivering speeches with passion and connection.
Though four strong individual performances, the group dynamic is hard to read, making it difficult to sense a clear shift towards familiarity by the play’s end. Aidani’s direction is sparse, with actors spending long stretches seated, which doesn’t help communicate meaning. Caitlin Duff’s lighting design is equally minimal – four rectangular spotlights homed in on their chairs – but could perhaps do with some colour or variety to complement the stories weaved on stage.
I would recommend for anyone seeing the show to follow along with the script; I chose not to and admit perhaps the play’s impact was lost on me due to this. An entirely non-English play is admirable as a concept and could be a strong reality if it engages production and dramatic elements thoughtfully in its construction. Sadly, in this case, the execution misses the mark, as the production relies primarily on text to do the heavy lifting, which limits its ability to reach audiences.
I Said This To the Bird is a necessary, bold provocation to reframe how we interact with refugees and asylum seekers, but its potential to deeply resonate is sadly lost in translation.
I Said This To the Bird by Dr Mammad Aidani
La Mama Courthouse
Actors: Reza Kaviani, Sepideh Karimi, Faraz Safari, and Mohammad (Ramin) Montazeri Kordi
Lighting Designer: Caitlin Duff
I Said This To the Bird performed at La Mama Courthouse from 2-13 August; tickets $8-$30.