Son of Byblos
Writer: James Elazzi
Director: Anna Jahjah
Downstairs Theatre, Belvoir
May 4 – 21, 2022
A tightly constructed and tense family drama set in Australian suburbia, James Elazzi’s Son of Byblos, gives a contemporary and painful twist to the old story of generational collision. Elazzi’s self-revelatory appeal for acceptance – and the possibility of personal fulfillment –exposes the misery experienced by those with a different sexuality identity within a Lebanese cultural community who are either compelled to sacrifice their orientation to familial expectations or to live a life of unquiet desperation.
The play unhesitatingly plunges into confrontation as Adam (Mansoor Noor) is deprived of his only confidante, when his cousin Claire (Kate Bookallil) announces that she is engaged to a man she met on her recent trip to Lebanon. Feeling personally betrayed, as their close relationship has been based upon their knowledge of each other’s different sexuality, Adam questions the viability of her decision. She needs to build a foundation “for her future”, she says, and later claims pathetically or ironically “that marriage will set her free”.
The freedom Claire desires is the same freedom that Angela (Violette Ayad), Adam’s former girlfriend, means when she describes Adam as “her ticket to freedom”. She knew at the time he was gay and she would always be “second” but she also knew that marriage was the only way she could escape the parental home. For the tormented Claire marriage without love is freedom from disappointing her mother who looked at her “for the first time with pride” when she sees her fitted with her wedding dress. By contrast, Adam’s undervalued mother and good housewife Carol (Deborah Galanos), craves a more passionate engagement with life through secret flamenco lessons.
While Carol has Adam, with whom she can share her secret longing, when Adam loses Claire he is isolated. Already, his home life is made miserable by the expectations of his hard- working father, John (Simon Elrahi), whose grudges against recent migrants and Asians
indicate a deep disappointment in his own achievement. He longs to be proud of his son but on the condition that Adam practices a profession valued by the Lebanese community – or at least a job that requires a suit – and denigrates Adam’s ambitions to be a web designer. Carol is a powerless spectator as her family meals are turned into a battleground between her husband and son separated as they are by technological change.
Unable to form a meaningful relationship, as he must keep his sexual orientation a secret, Adam is driven to seek physical relief in public lavatories. The way in which these dimly lit visits are staged, and their timing suggest that Adam both seeks to confirm his own sense of worthlessness and to act out what he perceives as his father’s withholding of love through these brief encounters. Desperation turns him to consider the Claire option and he attempts to reignite his relationship with a cautious Angela.
At an often funny and chaotic family meal, Carol stages a rebellion against the patriarchy and confusion over the identity of Claire’s fiancé gives the forthright Angela much-needed insight into Adam’s attempt to entrap her. At the close, there is hope of redemption for the family. Even a patriarch – who knows more than his family thinks – can relish a relaxation of cultural roles and Adam seems at last freed to rediscover who he is.
While Noor and the supporting cast give outstanding performances, some scenes are memorable – the sudden revelation of a carefree Adam as he flounces around in Claire’s red satin dress, Claire as a bride standing alone stroking her white dress, a sacrificial victim moving slowly towards her wedding vows, and the heart-breaking intensity of the floundering attempts of Adam to connect with his father. Much of the play’s powerful emotional impact is owing to Jahjah’s sensitivity to the vulnerability of the characters and having the professional confidence to visually moderate what a lesser director might have sensationalised.