– by Jen Perry
Once We Were Kings is an abstract, austere look into the fraught and difficult existences of those who live between their culture, their religion and their desires. The non-linear abstract action loosely follows slices of experience from three characters, two girls and one young man, who all identify as queer Muslim youth living in Australia. Well self-appointed, the play juxtaposes these “crescent-shaped peg[s]” against their efforts to fit into a “Southern Cross-shaped hole.” And unfortunately for them, these efforts prove futile.
The show is presented by Third Culture Kids, a local team “with roots stretching all over the globe.” ‘Third culture kids is actually a term in of itself, referring to children who have spent a significant portion of their lives outside of their parents’ dominant culture. Directed by Mustafa Al Mahdi and written by Dure Rey Khan, Once We Were Kings opens up an important discussion between tradition and modernity. The three main characters are effectively torn between the oft-referenced ‘dichotomy’ their lives bring, citing the ‘galaxy of possibilities’ inside themselves time and again, in hopes that out loud recitation might enable access to them. The messages within are powerful and important. The three leads Solayman Belmihoub, Angela Mahlatjie and Naomi Denny are as effective at teasing out the metaphors and links between the scenes as can be done.
The main issue I have with Once We Were Kings is the lack of flow and clarity of characters and onstage moments. An example of this is a poignant scene during which Belmihoub sits on a chair and speaks to the audience, of his divided existence. On the floor in front of him is a prayer shawl under a gun. The implications that he is contemplating suicide are plain. The extended pauses and moments of reflection before and after he speaks do not elicit the highly charged, anticipatory reactions I suspect Al Mahdi wishes them to. They only succeed in losing the momentum of the prior scenes and subjecting the audience to their own internal monologues of what might or might not have just happened. It would have been entirely more effective had these tensions been either maintained or built up through the action.
Speaking to my friend after the viewing, we also agreed that the play itself might have provided further clarity, if its end scene had been flipped with its beginning scene. There wasn’t a solid foundation for the story to really cling to, rendering my understanding and enjoyment of the play less fulfilling than it possibly could have been. I found myself pondering what had just happened, rather than engaging with the thematic elements as they were presented.
Once We Were Kings is an important addition to the local theatre scene. I suggest that younger people and those who have never before considered these issues to go and take a look. It might be a bit rough around the edges, but that in no way diminishes the importance of its message.
Images courtesy of Third Culture Kids.