Twenty years ago the Amiri family fled Taliban ruled Afghanistan for freedom, following an impassioned public speech that their mother dared to make against the oppressive regime in her home country at the time. It was a perilous journey that would lead them to Cardiff, a journey that all too many have faced and a journey that has been made time and again all too recently.
I was asked on the way out of this performance by a member of staff what I thought of the piece, and I responded emphatically that I loved it. This response troubled me as I walked home: how could I love a piece of theatre about a family risking their lives just to be able to have one?
You’d be forgiven for thinking that The Boy With Two Hearts would be a difficult watch – but I have forgiven myself for sharing my enthusiasm with that usher, because this is a play about hope, with an enormous heart, that you have no choice but to love.
Fleeing their home country, the Amiri family – dad Mohamood (Dana Haqjoo), mum Fariba (Gehane Strehler), and three brothers Hessam (Shamal Ali), Hamed (Farshid Rokey) and Hussein (Ahmad Sakhi) – share their story by bringing alive the many characters they encounter collectively. Hessam, Hamed and Hussein are the Three Musketeers: three young Man United-supporting lads with dreams harder to come by than any I, or many in last night’s packed Wales Millennium Centre audience, have ever had to fight for.
Youngest brother Hussein is incredibly unwell with a condition where one side of his heart does not function properly, leaving the other side to work twice as hard. He and his family are racing against time to get to the UK for treatment needed to save his life. Claustrophobic and breathless, this drama moves along at a fast pace from Afghanistan to Russia, through Germany, Holland, France and the UK. The words are easy for me to write – yet in practice, as you watch this family cram themselves into the boot of a car, clamour onto trains and almost suffocate in an airtight container on a ship, you feel at times that you’re not sitting in the comfort of an air-conditioned theatre. You’re right there with them, such is the power of the storytelling here.
Of course, it’s impossible to truly comprehend the reality of this race against time to get Hussein the help he needs, but with clever staging, lighting and sound – and creative stage captions, which this hearing-impaired reviewer loved – the production brings into sharp focus the tight, relentless margins, in every sense of the phrase, that determine this family’s fate.
I would liked to have seen more of Fariba’s relationship with Hussein. There is a hospital scene towards the end of the play where the interaction between these two breaks every heart in the audience; I just wonder, in pure theatrical terms, if this moment could hammer home this play’s message, had the relationship between these two characters had some quiet focus amongst the more frenetic scenes of this dramatic true story. Perhaps it’s a luxury that they were never afforded, and one which we the audience must also miss out on.
I don’t know how they achieve it but there’s no sense of pity or vengeance invoked here. It’s like the creative team (which involves the real-life Hamed – and Hessam Amiri, whose book has been adapted for the stage by Phil Porter) somehow overpower us with positivity. If ever a piece of theatre was a representation of its subject, this is it. The Boy With Two Hearts is unashamedly a play about the bravery of one young boy and his family who would not be defeated by hate and whose story will continue to influence anyone who hears it in exactly the same way for a long time to come.
Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff Bay, Tue 5 Oct.
The Boy With Two Hearts runs until Sat 23 Oct. Tickets: £15. Info: here
words JAMIE REES
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