ON Sami in Paradise with Vaishnavi Suryaprakash and Hazem Shammas

We had the pleasure to chat with actors Vaishnavi Suryaprakash and Hazem Shammas about their roles in the upcoming World Premier of Sami in Paradise at Belvoir Theatre Company– An adaptation of  Nicolai Erdman’s The Suicide, that brings the play out of Stalinist Russia and into a refugee camp.  
Tell us about your characters. What’s their deal, their M.O, what do they want?

VAISHNAVI: I play a bunch of zany characters throughout the play, but my main character is a young female student called Vaishnavi.

HAZEM: The thing about Vaish’s character that I love is how she insists that because of camp life she, as a woman, has acquired a precious education that otherwise may not have been achieved in her ‘back home’.

VAISHNAVI: That’s true! She’d rather stay in the refugee camp than return to her homeland, because her time in the camp has actually empowered her – unexpected, right? It’s because she’s been able to go to school for the first time ever here, which has given her hope for a future that holds more than early marriage.

HAZEM: But we’re not saying treatment of refugees is OK. Especially not Australia’s policy. We’re exploring resilience and what the human spirit achieves against all odds. That’s where my artist/poet character comes in. He believes in the cause of art and expression as a means to elevate us out of our detention and camp life. Kind of like theatre and the very reason we’re here doing this show. So he’s kind of a play-within-a-play character.

The tagline for this show reads: “Looney Toons meets Hamlet in a refugee camp”. These are three very disparate elements. How have you gone about bringing them together?

HAZEM: By ignoring Hamlet as a play and embracing Hamlet as the metaphysical whiner he is: an exile of his environment, mind, and body. Chuck that into the kind of stateless mess of a refugee camp and try to handle it like a ticking bomb planted for the road runner but with the intelligence (or lack thereof) of the Coyote.Each character is a clown and doesn’t really grasp insight and foresight too well, existing in the immediate more than anything.

VAISHNAVI: I’d say there’s a bit of Monty Python in the show too! It is an unusual show, because we’re talking about really loaded topics through slapstick, farce, and black comedy. It’s sort of like The Simpsons, where you can watch an episode and love it for the surface-level jokes and characters and wacky events, or you can be attuned to its hidden criticisms and big ideas. We’ve added to the fun with the variety of characters you’d meet in a huge camp like ours (from a one-man aid agency to a saucy brothel owner) as well as the way we’re staging the play, where all the props and set elements are simple found objects.

Sami in Paradise is based onThe Suicideby Nicolai Erdman. What’s the process of adaptation been like?

HAZEM: There was some research into real life stories of refugee life gave us all the sense of tragedy needed to explore the play. That and  work-shopping it together gave the director enough material to take the original text away over the summer and rewrite the refugee version we have now.

VAISHNAVI:  I’d have to agree, you’d be surprised at how often ideas and even lines from the original play appeared in our research of refugee stories. So funnily enough, we haven’t had to do much to bring these different elements together, because they are a part of real stories and experience. It’s been a really fun and collaborative process of adaptation. It’s been an evolving beast in all the best ways – we keep cutting things that aren’t quite working, and keeping any interesting offers thrown out on stage. (I may or may not have a Bollywood-style dance solo. It may or may not be very bad.)

Would you say this iteration makes it more significant to an Australian audience?

VAISHNAVI: Oh yes, yes, yes – Sami in Paradise will be much more enjoyable for Australian audiences to connect to. It’s not set in the bygone era of Stalinist Russia with in-jokes we’ll never get. It’s set right now and reflects the real-life global situation (which Australia is linked to, whether we like to admit it or not). Plus, given Australian society is made of up migrants, we’ll find a lot to relate to in Sami and the other characters.

“It’s set right now and reflects the real-life global situation (which Australia is linked to, whether we like to admit it or not). Plus, given Australian society is made of up migrants, we’ll find a lot to relate to in Sami and the other characters.”
This play joins a cohort of shows recently at Belvoir about and starring People of Colour. How has it been working on a show like this on an Australian main stage? Why are audiences responding so strongly to these stories?

VAISHNAVI: I am thrilled that we’re making progress in telling stories that are more representative of the societies that make up Australia. Sure, kitchen-sink dramas have their place, but audiences love stories like The Drover’s Wife because they’re so different to what’s come before. They’re intriguing and often they allow audiences to finally connect in an even deeper way to what’s on stage. It’s empowering. Representation on a main stage is so important because often it can feel like recognition and acceptance in society – I am human too, I am valuable too, my cultural story is also worth listening to.

HAZEM: It’s great and it’s what Belvoir is about. But we can stop and pat ourselves on the back when People of Colour aren’t just in these plays that are obviously about their colour. When we can cast any other play or TV show or whatever with the same actors, without referencing or needing to explain their brownness, we’ll have found our stories even more accessible and exciting.

VAISHNAVI: I’d also like to see more shows where actors from different cultural backgrounds play roles that aren’t dependent on having that cultural background, and are instead just dependent on being a human… Like Korean-American actor Marcus Choi playing George Washington in the hit musical Hamilton.

We still have a long way to go, but the work that art makers like Belvoir are doing generates some solid momentum.

“When we can cast any other play or TV show or whatever with the same actors, without referencing or needing to explain their brownness, we’ll have found our stories even more accessible and exciting.”

Finally can you tell us what excites you about this play? What’s your favourite thing about this project?

HAZEM: It’s exciting to share the stage with the variety of amazing talent in this ensemble. The joy and comedy found while playing with this stuff is hopefully something that audiences will share too, and with which we’ll continue to have too much fun with.

VAISHNAVI: I love so many things about this play. Refugees presented as people, not an ‘issue’. An excellent scene involving Sami playing a tuba. Getting to speak with our non-Australian native accents. Laughing so often in rehearsal that I get in trouble. There are eleven cast members and two musicians working on this play. Everyone brings their own comedy, eccentricity and flavour to the play. That’s THIRTEEN different flavours on stage at once. There’s not even that many chip flavours. Yum!

Sami in Paradise runs from the 1-29th of April at Belvoir’s Upstairs Theatre. Tickets can be purchasedhere