Review by Sam Waite
Sports and theatre can seem, on paper, to be total opposites. However, there is evidence – the iconic musical Damn Yankees, and plays including Take Me Out and Dear England, among others – that the two can have a seamless and satisfying blend. maatin, in his play Duck, has melded not only the worlds of theatre and sport, but also the complexities of growing up as a Muslim in a time where targeted attacks by outliers were often treated as representative of the entire faith.
Ismail – Smiley, to most – is a star cricket player on the under 15s team at his school, and his previous coach saw enough promise to move him into the senior team. With the new coach seeming less impressed from the offset, Ismail’s confidence and his performance both falter as his awareness of racial divides, and why his dad is so devoted to India’s team, grow rapidly. Set in the spring and early summer of 2005, the subtler microaggressions and legitimate flubs in matches mingle with more outwardly hateful conduct as the date barrels towards 7/7.
Ismail is the only person on stage for the nearly 90 minute show, and Omar Bynon proves to be more than up to the challenge. Making each supporting role he plays convincing and distinguishable, even without the aid of the constantly-displayed and credited captions, his greatest achievement is in his blatantly and believably a teenager Ismail is. By on had an infectious, unfailing energy that sells both the age and enthusiasm of the character, and makes it particularly easy to root for Smiley’s success.
Of course, a major factor in the character’s likability is maatin’s script. Knowing but never preachy, a period piece without shoehorned references, and a love letter to cricket while analysing the difficulties of the South Asian community at that time, his work has nuance and intelligence in spades. Relationships feel authentic and rich with history, and a use of commentators throughout – using prerecorded voices - carries the metaphor of a difficult match through the entire play,
Sets and costuming by Maariyah Sharjil set the scene immediately – a strip of artificial turf centre-stage is back by a set of wickets, and fabric draped upstage allow for projections of both captions and animations of the travelling balls during matches. Ismail’s preppy school uniform allows for the blazer and tie to be removed and reveal a cricket uniform, perhaps even preppier, so that without any dialogue we would know what sport he plays and where he does so. Sound design from Holly Khan largely offers crowd noise and celebratory cheers, but also a comedic touch in the sound of quacking when the title comes into play. (It's a cricket term. I didn't realise either.)
I'm Wyatt Corner and Hamza Ali, director and movement director respectively, have helped to shape Bynon’s performance into the physical and engaging work it stands as. Corner’s delicate approach and preference to acknowledge the boyish joy and childish tantrums that accompany Ismail’s cricket-related incidents, rather than forcing an earlier realisation of racial issues on a somewhat happy-go-lucky protagonist, pays off when the harsher themes come to light and his reaction is more genuine for the reality of the realisation. As for Ali, it's his work that makes the years of cricket training believable - I'm not a sports nut by any means, but nothing seemed out of place or questionable beyond the lack of other players… or a real pitch. (Is it a pitch? A field? A ground??)
An unfortunate letdown was the captioning itself. While I was delighted to find that captioning was used for every performance, with the Arcola’s website even stating clearly where was best to sit to be able to read them, Duck did have some issues with this element. With them being projected onto the fabric, an unfortunate necessity of the space, it was easy for Bynon’s shadow to cover up certain words and not allow for ample time to read before the next lines appeared. Certain slides also flicked by at a more rapid pace, seemingly to keep up with Ismail’s monologuing and slight changes since they were written, but proving distracting at times even to those of us who don't require the captioning to follow the story.
Something that must be acknowledged is the powerful segment near the end in which Ismail takes a seat on the ground to watch with the audience as the screens caption recorded interviews with those whose lives were impacted by the rise in not just anti-Islamic rhetoric and racism, but the allowance and acceptance of them. Seeing the names of various members of the crew behind the production helped to magnify how important it is that these stories are told and the aftermath of these events re-examined through a wiser, more nuanced lens.
Duck is a powerful and understated piece of work that proves not only the importance of telling these stories, but of allowing them to be told by the correct people with lived, authentic experience with the topics they are approaching. Cricket is our entry point into Ismail’s world, but the specificities of his life and his background are where the real moments off genius are to be found.
Duck plays at the Arcola Theatre until July 15th
For tickets and information visit https://www.arcolatheatre.com/whats-on/duck/
Photos by Isha Shah