Rajiv Joseph’s groundbreaking theatrical drama ‘Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo’ will explore both the power and the perils of human nature when it makes its Sydney premiere this month.
Set in Baghdad 2003 during the Iraq War, the play follows the lives of two American Marines and an Iraqi translator who are forever changed by an encounter with a quick-witted tiger who haunts the streets of war-torn Baghdad attempting to find meaning, absolution and salvation amidst the city’s ruins.
The Tiger, played by Robin Williams in his final Broadway performance, will be played by industry veteran Maggie Dence (‘The Mavis Bramston Show’, ‘The Turquoise Elephant’, ‘The Sullivans’).
“When I first read it, I wasn’t looking to make any big changes,” Director, Claudia Barrie, says of the casting. “And then the more that I looked at it and worked on the play and thought about casting and the vision that I had, it came into my mind that it would be a really interesting shift [to cast a woman as the Tiger].”
“The first image you see in the play is that there is one figure behind bars – a prisoner of some sort. The audience don’t know straight away who it is or what it is, and right next to that image are two strong, powerful men. It made me start to think about the people in society who are oppressed; victims of war, the displaced, refugees, people in detention, women… and then because the play is set in the Middle East, the connotations of the different religions in the Middle East and how Muslim women are seen both from Western cultures and from their own culture and how they’re treated.”
“And then I reread it again with a woman in mind, and I really liked how she [the Tiger] turns around and attacks the men and has this amazing moment where she really challenges them. There’s also a scene just at the beginning of Act Two where she challenges God. She stands up to God and demands answers, and I just really loved that it was a woman doing it.”
“I also knew that there’d be a lot of talk about it being Robin Williams’ last stage play, and I did not want my audience sitting there going ‘oh, this is the Australian independent theatre version of Robin Williams’. If we made it a woman, they wouldn’t be able to even think about that.”
“So there were a lot of reasons behind it, and I did see a lot of fantastic male actors to the point that it got really difficult to make that decision, but then we got Maggie, we found Maggie, and it was just such a wonderful fit so there was no looking back.”
Debuting in California with a Broadway production that followed in early 2011, the play has received many accolades including NEA Outstanding New American Play in 2008 and Pulitzer Prize for Drama finalist in 2010.
“I’ve worked on a lot of plays that are incredibly well written by really, really fantastic playwrights, and I think this is one of the most sophisticated pieces of text I’ve ever worked on. There’s so much metaphor in it, so much symbolism, so much texture, and it is dealing with really heart wrenching stuff, but it is also incredibly funny. One moment you’re sitting there laughing at whatever absurd situation these characters have found themselves in, and then the next minute you’re in tears because you’re faced with a question you don’t know the answer to. It’s a fantastic play.”
‘Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo’ plays at Old Fitz Theatre from 12 April-6 May.