Writer: Hamed & Hessam Amiri
Director: Amit Sharma
A woman stands up and makes a speech against the Taliban demanding more rights and is forced to flee with her family in fear of their lives. Desperate to escape the Taliban’s brutal clutches, the family find themselves at the mercy of people traffickers, deprived of agency and tossed around Europe in an attempt to find a safe passage to the UK. The Boy With Two Hearts (TBWTH) may be set in 2001 – the previous time that the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, but the parallels with recent events are stark. That WMC’s first production since re-opening feels so heartfelt and so urgent simply helps to reinforce the power of theatre to provoke and inspire.
The sense of their perilous journey is cleverly portrayed, with the feelings of fear and uncertainty etched on the faces of the cast and in their physicality. Here the set is also used in imaginative and original ways; placed across two levels of a balcony and a floor, the set has a multitude of clever nooks and recesses which become the secret compartments the Amiri family use attempting to evade detection. Layered on top of this and throughout the production is the creative use of projections and projected words designed by Hayley Egan. Words are used to become representative of themselves; for example, at one point the Amiri family hiding in the back of a car are represented by their names being projected into the outline of a car, while at another, drops of the word “rain” fall across the stage to represent a downpour. The effect is simple but powerful in creating a sense of mood and space.
Assisting in the creation of this mood is the score, created by Giuliano Modarelli (guitar), Al MacSween (keyboard/piano) and Gurdain Singh Rayatt (tabla). Beautiful Middle Eastern soundscapes punctuate the piece and layered on top of this is the singing of Elaha Soroor. While this singing is very evocative, Soroor’s role in the piece is less clear and sometimes feels a little muddled. Appearing throughout, she at times seems to be a passive observer of events, while in others, appears to be a God-like figure tempting to titular Hussein (Ahmad Sakhi) to his death.
The ensemble cast effortlessly multi-role throughout, starting as members of the Amiri family, while also becoming those they encounter on their way from Herat to Cardiff. The multi-rolling works well, with subtle changes of costume indicating a change from one of the family to a trafficker or immigration official. In doing so, TBWTH sucks you into the captivating true story of one family struggle to get to the UK. Captions are projected in the middle of the set throughout, meaning the show is not only more accessible but also allows everyone to follow the sections spoken or sung in Farsi. This doesn’t distract, and in fact, allows you to more easily be absorbed into multi-lingual parts of the show.
Playing the Amiri Sons (Hamed, Hussein and Hessam) Farshid Rokey, Amhad Sakhi and Shamail Ali have the unenviable job of being grown men who start by playing boys much younger than they are. While generally, this works, occasionally the dialogue feels a little stilted and it is unclear if this comes from the challenges of adapting a book to a stage play or the performances themselves. Moment of levity, such as banter between the brothers about whether they support Manchester United or Arsenal while playing football in a refuge camp feel unnatural and somewhat jarring. These scenes aside, the ensemble cast generally perform the admirable task of whisking us along and making us feel part of the action, from the cramped shipping containers to the terror being discovered.
The use of tension and suspense is played on well throughout the production, with one particularly memorable scene involving an escape attempt from a refuge camp. Utilising flashlights, rapid costume and role changes and a dramatic score it was a breathless and captivating scene. In another, middle son Hamed (Farshied Rokey) remarks on the role luck and chance play in refuges escaping, and that even minor choices can have big consequences Often at the mercy of events, such scenes help to highlight how their agency is stripped away from them and how much they rely on unscrupulous people traffickers or the kindness of strangers to survive.
The second half focuses more on the Amiri’s experiences once they arrive in the UK; their asylum processing and moving to Cardiff and how the sons struggle to fit into Welsh life. Throughout the piece, it is clear that Hussein has a heart problem and suffers from episodic blackouts, however, only when the family gets to the UK is it clear how serious the situation is. Suddenly the family is upended once again to a series of examinations, treatments, and surgery to help save his life. Describing itself as a “love letter to the NHS”, TBWTH generally manages to walk the line between reminding us of the importance of our health service and only occasionally becoming sickly sweet in the process.
While the media often portrays refugees coming to the UK as a nuisance at best (and a scourge at worst), it is stories like the one told in TBWTH that are so important in re-framing that narrative to the underlying people at the centre of it all. Mothers, fathers, and children caught up in circumstances unimaginable to those privileged enough to never have experienced them. An original, and powerful production, The Boy With Two Hearts serves to remind us of the humanity and courage of those less fortunate.
Runs until 23 October 2021