Danny is a young man who comes from a deeply religious, stoically traditional Lebanese family. He lives with his uncompromising mother and, until recently, was engaged to be married but inexplicably broke it off. That is the background to James Elazzi’s drama-filled, bitingly humorous, slightly self-referential new play, Lady Tabouli.
“It’s come up from past issues within my life but also the people around me and who I’ve grown up with. I’ve sort of married the two together,” says Elazzi. “I think what’s really important for me is to be able to draw on those experiences that have shaped me growing up and, whatever I’ve learned, put that in my writing and give it out to the world.”
The play was written three years ago but underwent an intense re-write after it had a preliminary staging as part of Griffin Theatre’s Batch Festival.
“What I’ve got now is that definite voice that I’m wanting to say,” says Elazzi. He felt compelled to write the play as a way of exploring inciting incidents in his early twenties around hyper masculinity and sexuality.
Main character, Danny, has been chosen as Godfather for his nephew. The play is set around the frenetic preparations for the baptism and the family’s meticulous fussing about protocol and appearances. Danny is about to drop a bombshell which will sour the celebrational mood and test the true harmony of his family. It’s a fraught situation but it lends itself to humour, explains Elazzi:
“It’s really important to sit back and analyse your culture with a grain of salt. To laugh at yourself…it is actually quite funny if you think about all the things that we just obsess over, especially when there’s a time frame.”
Religion is a key theme in the play, which gives it particular currency. Elazzi shows how isolating and destructive it can be for non-conformists:
“It allows boundaries to happen – and squares – and if you don’t fit within a boundary, if you don’t fit inside the square, you’re immediately outcast.”
His family has seen the play and they think it’s funny – and they recognise themselves. Elazzi writes about his life in the hope that it might spark change.
“I just hope as many people as possible come and see the work…because I want to start a conversation about the writing that I do, I think it’s essential,” he says.
Although Greek, director, Dino Dimitriadis says his and Elazzi’s cultural backgrounds are very similar and he’s impressed with how Elazzi has written about it.
“It’s lovely to have a play that deals with some quite contemporary conflicts sitting on a canvas of something that is steeped in ritual and tradition and culture,” says Dimitriadis. “I myself am a queer person who grew up in a Greek Orthodox family. My parents are not strict religious like some of the characters are in this play, but certainly being outside of the structure, that’s really what it’s about for me I think. A lot of these traditions, cultures and religions they all come with structures and rules.”
Dimitriadis helped Elazzi realise this play for the stage. It has come a long way since its first iteration at Griffin Theatre which was a very minimal production. This new staging at Riverside is part of Sydney Festival.
“It’s a big show and it’s got many moving parts to it,” says Dimitriadis. “There’s a lot of surprises as well, and some magic, it’s not all just steeped in naturalism.”
The set recreates a typical Lebanese home replete with lavish decor and furniture.
Dimitriadis believes that staging the play in Parramatta will bring it to an audience who will be both challenged and challenging.
“I think it’s important that we’re doing it here and that we’re not doing it in Darlinghurst, because it does sit on that canvas of the religious freedoms and also of the plebiscite and how that played out in Western Sydney.”
Lead actor, Antony Makhlouf, is also of Lebanese heritage and while he can’t relate to every aspect of Danny’s story, he believes the play’s themes are universal and powerful.
“Without sounding too momentous, I think what James is offering is a hybrid of cultures through the play that I think people are craving for,” he explains. “That’s very rewarding when the work is beyond the theatre or beyond the stage, when it’s affecting people in the real world […] I think it’s providing solidarity for, I guess, those queer people who grew up feeling they can’t have the culture they grew up with.”
The play takes the audience through some dark emotional territory, but does it with moments of levity so that overall it’s a balanced, positive experience.
“When you offer tough issues, if you serve it with a bit of humour and a bit of light heartedness, I think it’s easier to digest,” says Makhlouf. “The way James has written this, he punches where he needs to punch and he steps back where he needs to.”
Jan 9 – 18, 2:30pm, 7:45pm; $55 – $74 + bf; Riverside Theatres, Corner of Church and Market Streets, Parramatta; riversideparramatta.com.au/NTofP/show/lady-tabouli/