Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

20 Apr

This play by Rajiv Joseph premiered in the US in 2009 and won the Pulitzer in 2010.

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is beautifully rich and multi-leveled. (Intriguingly, the program note tells us we will ‘get no answers’. A warning? An assurance?)

Set in 2003 in Iraq, it’s not naturalism. It’s got talking animals. And ghosts. And talking animal ghosts.

Poetically, it’s fascinating. The line by line level is engagingly colloquial and profane (fuck yeah bitch!), but take a step back and there are evocative recurring motifs. Ghosts that symbolize trauma and guilt. Odd golden objects that reflect skewed values. A zoo that suggests lives lived too small or simply wasted (‘Zoo is hell’). Hands, whole and broken, that are emblematic of our ability to both build and destroy. Talk of God that represents the quest for both ultimate meaning and culpability. And the tiger itself? The nature of violence and the awesome mystery of the created world. (Tyger, Tyger burning bright?) This cluster of motifs invites speculation about the links between creation and destruction, consequences and responsibility.

Maggie Dence in BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO (c) Kate Williams

Photo by Kate Williams

Director Claudia Barrie’s production is powerful theatre, visually and linguistically exciting. The entire cast is terrific. Maggie Dence as the tiger is gloriously imperious; her imposing presence injects the character’s existential angst with a fascinating, and very funny, tension. Josh Anderson and Stephen Multari, as American soldiers, amusingly and movingly capture their characters’ inability to deal with the complexity of the situation, and their complicity.  Andrew Lindqvist plays an Iraqi translator and one time gardener and topiarist, a creator of hedge animals in a tyrant’s garden (‘God likes gardens.’) He gives a sensitive portrayal of a gentle, intelligent man, a foil to the invading foreigners, and an example of one more poor soul caught up in Big History. Tyler De Nawi as Saddam’s twisted son is charismatic and dangerous.

Isabel Hudson’s masks*, aided in their impact by mask coach and performer Aanisa Vylet, are a highlight. They create a world that is half-dream, half-nightmare. They’re a reminder that Creation, artistic and divine, has elements of both. For what is Creation, but a dominance that only ends with a frightening, fraught letting go?

Paul Gilchrist

 

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph

at the Old Fitz til 6 May

tix and info here

 

*created from templates provided by Wintercroft Masks.

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