Norm and Ahmed review
A very familiar play for Sydney HSC drama students, (leading to an audience full of teenagers prepping for next week’s exam!), Alex Buzo’s famous two-hander Norm and Ahmed, produced by Australian Theatre Live at the Riverside Theatres, confronts audiences with the racist ideologies and undertones that are sadly still prominent in Australia today.
While Australia’s landscape has changed for the better since the original production of the play in 1968, encouraging authentic inclusivity and equity among all Australians, immigrants, and overseas visitors, there are undeniable aspects of contemporary Australia that are still racist and negatively affect the marginalised members of our community. It is vital to produce theatre that engages in criticism and discussion around taboos such as racism and violence, to confront audiences with the unfortunate yet real aspects of society and prompt successful action towards positive change.
Production Director Aarne Neeme and Associate Director Terence Clarke strive to present a modernised take on the production, specifically a greater insight into the nuance of Norm (Laurence Coy), the ocker, older, white male who is not just a racist old man, but a lonely individual with a violent streak and racist ideologies that are yet to be challenged. Whilst this take is insightful and reflects the perspectives of many older Australians, can the perpetuation of violence and racism be excused by one’s age and upbringing? No. It is simply not acceptable.
I would have enjoyed seeing a greater depth to Ahmed’s (Rajan Velu) character. The young Pakistani international student, who contradicts Norm with his formal speech, and perceptive political takes on Australia’s government, the free press, and Australian culture. Despite this, it was clear Coy and Velu had great onstage chemistry, engaging audiences through their journey from strangers to friends to strangers again. A few opening night jitters briefly interrupted the pace of the show, but as the evening went along the momentum was successfully maintained.
I believe Norm and Ahmed is a must-see show, particularly for white Australians who must put in the work to understand our white privilege, become aware of the disparities in our society and promote positive change towards equity and justice. This one-act play in the small intimate space of the Lennox Theatre is a confrontational yet engaging night out that will leave you with a greater understanding of our Australian community.
Laura Campbell, 22 (She/Her)
Alex Buzo’s Norm and Ahmed has held up for over 50 years – and this production at Riverside Theatres in Parramatta brings the characters to life in a very contemporary, powerful and engaging performance.
Laurence Coy and Rajan Velu showed a powerful connection with the audience, especially with the use of direct eye contact with individuals. In the storytelling sections, they both deliver monologues directly to the audience, narrating rants through clear engaging actions and strong physical theatre, making the audience feel more involved.
A major takeaway from seeing the show was hearing the audience’s reactions to the casual racism and – now hopefully – archaic language that is spoken by Norm (a character who represents the racist, sexist stereotype of many classic Aussie bogans). The audience’s reaction reveals how slurs and discriminative language are becoming more recognised today as being abusive, and highlights how in the day to day setting people experience casual racism too often.
This one-scene play unpacks many themes of trauma; from wars and PTSD, sexual assault, loneliness, and a longing for people to just “have someone to talk to” that are very much relevant in today’s world, even after so many years since Buzo first premiered the play in Melbourne. The continuity of this play is consistent, with a strong attention to the finer details of the production – for example, the watch Norm wears is set to a time past midnight as the play is set late at night.
In the short hour of the story, character arcs and development are evident. With no objectives really being met or resolved, each character similarly falls into the repetition of “just getting carried away”, with Ahmed reminiscing over his life at home or speaking up for what he stands for, whereas Norm becomes either aggressive, offensive or overly emotional, creating so many different moments of tension and release. The contrast within their newly formed relationship is very clear as they respond to each other with varying pace and exaggeration, each interaction and emotional change is clear and believable. The audience’s emotions are taken on a rollercoaster ride. As we try to unpack each character, we are led to believe that Norm has a reason for lashing out because of his past traumas, yet are quickly set back after being confronted by his questionable and often offensive sense of humour.
From the simplistic set that details the contemporary setting to the actors’ great commitment to the confronting characters, this play is definitely worth seeing.
Olivia Everingham, 15 (She/Her)
Australian Theatre Live’s Norm and Ahmed is playing at Riverside Theatres until 20 November. Book your tickets here.