I’ve seen Stephen Adly Guirgus’s The Last Days of Judas Iscariot (and loved it) so I was intrigued to see what his earlier work, In Arabia We’d All be Kings would be like. What is evident is that Guirgis is a writer who loves character: plot falls to the side so that his characters can take centre stage. The most dramatic events are only reported to the audience; the human condition is what this playwright is bothered about.
Arabia follows a group of people in downtown New York. There is no space for them: there’s little to no work, no welfare for the poor or troubled, and certainly no sense of loyalty. Guirgus provides a gritty depiction of a nineties dog-eat-dog New York, in which drugs and sex are a form of escapism, but are simultaneously the very things trapping the characters. Every character seems to be in a Catch-22: to be happy, you need money, but to get money, you need to do some horrific things; prostitution and drug addiction are rife among Guirgus’s characters.
What is interesting about the script is that it allows a range of emotions from the audience. There are moments that are evidently meant to be comical, and ones that are serious, but then there are moments in which the audience’s intended reaction is ambiguous: moments that I found harrowing, in which I pitied the characters, where moments that others found humorous.
Perhaps this is a testament to the cast: perhaps some members of the audience were driven to uncomfortable laughter. Whatever the reason, it can’t be argued that directors Jack Fairley and Andy Baker found a stellar cast for their production (who all mastered the New York accent). Gurguis’s plays don’t really have ‘main characters’, so each actor has to work particularly hard to impress during their scene.
Guirgus is obviously a fan of having someone onstage at all times – Judas is constantly present in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot – at it is incredibly impressive to be in character for so long; compliments must therefore go to Ben Firth. He played Sammy, an aged alcoholic and possible drug addict, incredibly well, providing humour and poignancy with skill.
Danny Hetherington was an excellent choice for Skank: his movements and mannerisms were convincing, and his manic laughter in the penultimate scene of the play was unsettling. Guild Drama newcomer Nathan Hawthorne played Lenny, a man recently released from prison. He deftly handled his character’s anger, but was also able to convincingly communicate his vulnerability. Ben Norris gave an impressive and sensitive performance as Greer. When playing a homosexual man, it would be easy to offer a clichéd portrayal. Norris, however, dealt with this carefully, making Greer a man that would exaggerate parts of his personality to exploit others. The scenes between Norris and Hetherington were particularly sad to watch.
For a play with a mainly male cast, the women really stole the show. My favourite character was Chickie, and this is a testament to Phoebe Brown’s acting prowess. I truly believed that she was a drug addict, from her nervous movements to her child-like, heart-breaking optimism at thought of being free from her addiction. My two favourite scenes involved Brown: firstly, the interaction between Chickie and Charlie, the bartender (played fantastically by Calum Fraser), was touching and strangely romantic. Her later scene with Demaris (played by Charis Jardam), a no-nonsense teenager old was particularly poignant: here we were given a tragic glimpse into the women’s hope for a better future. Jardam’s attitude and delivery were perfect for her character, making this scene the standout of the play.
The production team of the play had evidently worked hard to create an authentic atmosphere for the play: the genuine bar helped to create a sense of verisimilitude, but it was really the costume that stood out. The women’s outfits and make-up would have been particularly nostalgic for several women in the audience, which made the play even more uncomfortable to watch.
While Arabia seems to lack something that Judas has – perhaps an emotionally devastating monologue – it is still nothing short of an entertaining and thought-provoking play; however, it is the work of this particular cast and crew that held this production together, and made it undoubtedly successful.
By Jenna Clake