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CAUGHT BY GRACE: GRIFFIN’S JUMP FOR JORDAN

March 4, 2014

Like an archaeological dig site, a mound of sand intrudes upon Griffin’s corner stage, bursting through a window, cascading downwards onto the sandy carpet. Through the window, a garden, dark leafy foliage. And inside the house? Well, there’s an argument going on, an argument perfected and cemented over time, and we’re thrust headfirst into the world of Sophie, a twenty-something archaeology student, her “mad Arab” family and her girlfriend Sam. There is no question of where we are, familially-speaking, and as the play’s ninety-odd minutes unfold before us, we shift backwards and forwards through time, through memories and stories, half-truths and disguises, dreams, sleepless nights; family history, anxious projections and conversations with people who can’t be there anymore.

Donna Abela’s Jump For Jordan won the 2013 Griffin Award, and is presented here in its premiere production in conjunction with the Sydney Mardi Gras by Griffin Theatre Company. As described in the script’s notes, “the scenes in the play are often constructed of layers of narrative that collapse in on each other... Attention must be on context as well as content. The borders between scenes are intended to be porous.” To use the archaeological metaphor again (it is apt, after all), Abela’s play digs through several layers of accumulated strata, sifting fact from fiction, family stories from emotions and reality, and the result is a beautiful and moving exploration of identity, culture and relationships, both romantic and familial, and trying to reconcile all the disparate elements of your life with one another.

There are many beautiful moments throughout the play, with several subtle and clever allusions to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland which, alongside the various mythic echoes and refractions, lends the play an added layer of meaning, an additional mode of storytelling. While Alice’s adventure is ostensibly nonsensical, Sophie’s is not, and it is through storytelling and (more than) a bit of creative license that she is able to make sense of her own. There is a tender scene, a conversation between Azza and Sophie, late in the play which best encapsulates this. Azza, perhaps both the Red Queen and the Hatter all at once, tells Sophie the story of her aunt Layla and how she found a purpose through telling stories to the children in the Jenin refugee camps in the West Bank. Told by Azza in predominantly single words, each word is so crucial, so heartbreakingly and painstakingly chosen that you can hear the effort, the personal struggle it takes to do so. You can her it, feel it, see it, almost touch its power, and yet it is beautiful, and it is just one example of Abela’s gentle, considered and fierce brushstrokes with which she has drawn the play.

Brought to life by director Iain Sinclair and the cast, there is an honesty and a rawness, an emotional weight and a political urgency to the play which makes it sing. There are some moments where the delivery of a line or perhaps a scene is pushed dangerously towards hysterical, but it never lingers or lasts. We can feel the frustration Sophie (Alice Ansara) has towards her mother and her expectations; we can feel the unsureness and restlessness of Loren’s (Sheridan Harbrdidge) feelings towards her impending marriage; we feel – and see – the love and desire for Sophie, and to help her figure her crazy messy life out, pouring out of Sam (Anna Houston) and we want to help too. We initially see Alice’s mother Mara (Doris Younane) through Sophie’s eyes but we soon see how she has made immense sacrifices to be in Australia, how much she is perhaps still uncomfortable in this country, how much she still dreams of Jordan. We see in Azza (Camilla Ah Kin) a gentle fierceness, a catalyst for change and for growth, for redemption and understanding, as well as a very entertaining fantasy exaggeration of her directness and her forcefulness in the Avenging Azza character. In Sahir (Sal Sharah), Sophie’s dead father, we feel the sacrifice made to start again in a new country, a land of possibility and new beginnings, a man desperate to embrace everything in his path and to make sure his wife and family have the best they can. Through his ghostly presence (a bit like Ellen’s cricket-mad father in This Year’s Ashes from Griffin’s 2011 season), we see a man who accepts Sophie and Sam’s relationship as it is, doesn’t ask questions about it, accepts them for who they are, and there’s a really lovely scene between Sam and Sahir as they share a kebab in a desert roadhouse, surrounded by desert wildflowers, somewhere in the centre of Australia.

Just as Azza is the catalyst for Sophie’s coming to grips with who she is and where she’s going, so too perhaps is Sahir, a kind of White Rabbit if we are to extend the use of the Alice in Wonderland motif. Sahir had a dream of a better future; not only did he dream the dream, but he also believed it, made it happen. And in many ways, Sophie has to do the same, and it is both Sam and Azza, with Sahir’s help, who enable her to do so. Like Rita Kalnejais wrote in 25 Belvoir Street, Jump For Jordan is a play about grace, and learning to accept the grace of others.

Grace becomes most visible in the face of disaster. When everything’s
going to shit, grace presses out like red leaf patterns from the chaos…
Grace is what catches you when you’ve lost control and you’re free-falling…
At the moment of grace our hearts are exquisite, raw and open and we are
guided by them… When I sit in a dark theatre and someone on stage reveals
the truth of their heart to me and I feel my own beat in response – I feel grace…
It’s the miracle of humans being revealed together.

Jump For Jordan has a beating heart, a conscience, a big-heartedness, a wanting fierceness, a disarming gracefulness which catches us and the characters as we fall into it. Politically charged, Abela never lets the politics or the political realities of the past intrude upon the story being told; they are just details, threads in the magic carpet that Azza (in her Avenging guise) shares with Sophie. Theatre is essentially a conversation, between a playwright and an audience, facilitated by a script and the cast and crew’s work. It is a dialogue between two parties, a discussion, and in many respects, Jump For Jordan is the perfect play for Australia now. Not only ‘just’ about marriage equality (albeit in an oblique way), it is also about the immigrant experience, about cultural diversity and tolerance, about the preservation of cultural and anthropological history, about contemporary twenty-first century Australian life. If this play can help facilitate a broader cultural discussion, or become a voice in the discussion, then its legacy and impact will be just as assured as its writing and performance.

Just as Sam often asks Sophie to ‘interrogate the artefact,’ so too is Sophie asked to interrogate herself and her family’s past. Just as no real conclusions can be conclusively drawn from a first impression of an artefact, so too can no real understanding about a family’s history be made from preconceived ideas and family legends. It takes understanding, compassion, empathy and a bit of sifting through layers of emotions and emotional baggage before you can arrive at a conclusion. And when Sophie does make her conclusions about herself, her relationships and her family, the ending is just as you’d hoped it would be. While charged with the potential to descend into saccharine romantic-comedy territory, it navigates its path with aplomb, heart and soul.

It’s like Sophie says early on in the play:

I think a Western society doesn’t understand [this]. It’s rare here,
but in Jordan [there’s] a huge sense of family spirit. We’re genuinely
close. It’s not that we have to be like this, it’s that we are.