Bitter sweet Turkish delights

Keith Gallasch

I can’t vouch for the Turkish-Australian content of Doctor Akar’s Women, a first play from Antonia Baldo a young Australian resident in London where she’s having her first feature film screenplay produced in 2002. She’s visited Turkey but freely admits (though refusing to go into any detail) that her play is about her own family but filtered through another culture. Whatever its provenance and regardless of its first play failings, Doctor Akar’s Women is a fine work about masculinity—a study of the male child of a father who suicided, his situation complicated by unresolved cultural and sexual tensions.

Akar is a doctor, a general practitioner, born in Australia of a Turkish immigrant father and an Australian mother. On the one hand he appears benign, a storyteller, passing on family lore—to the women who langorously surround him as the play opens—and casually interested in his cultural origins, signalled by the small moments of male Turkish dance he slips into, usually when he’s on his own. He is indifferent to his wife, distant from his surgeon-trainee daughter who is desperate for his advice and emotional support as she learns to cut up corpses in class. On the grounds that his sister’s estranged lover behaves a little like he’s gay, Akar mocks her desire to return to the relationship. Harry is also totally removed from his formidable mother. Harry Akar is not a nice man. That is one of the Baldo’s great strengths, the ability to create a man who is superficially amiable, who expects to be heard but does not listen, and the will to keep him unlikeable.

Without having yet to spend any sympathy on Harry, we gradually accumulate material for a murky case study. He loves and hates the father who suicided when he was 12. Harry was abandoned; Harry in turn abandons all about him. But he treasures the memory and the storytelling of the father, he becomes him in a way, entangled in the unresolved love between his mother and father, wanting to blame his mother for his betrayal. Harry Akar is afraid of love, of commitment. His wife Connie reminds him that his political activism at university attracted her—he can’t remember it, he says, abusing her for her Double Bay lifestyle and financial dependence. Harry is a case, and while we can’t sympathise, we can understand, and we can foresee the hell into which he is about to cast himself.

Harry has an affair with a patient with advanced tuberculosis who seeks him out because he has a reputation for handing out drugs, no questions asked. Despite, or because of, her death wish Harry is drawn to her, wants to help her, leaves his family, tries to move in with her in one of the play’s most discomfiting scenes. Here is a woman who is used to being alone with herself and an imminent death. But the world moves on regardless of Harry; the woman dies, his daughter masters the challenge of surgery, his sister reunites with her lover, his wife forms a relationship with Harry’s accountant, and Harry has to learn the complexity of his mother’s feelings about her husband’s suicide. Harry has lost a lot, gained some, been uprooted from the saturnine ease of cynicism. Unfortunately the play’s final scenes manage these resolutions too briskly, too comfortably. However, Dr Akar's Women stays with you: at a deeper level than the functional ending there's something extremely disturbing in the constellation of a fracturing family, the mystery of suicide, an initiation into surgery, and an affair between a man on the verge of emotional death and a woman whose body has betrayed her.

Sandro Colarelli plays the challenging role of Harry with a dextrous physical ease and a Kevin Kline charm that constantly and bitterly undercuts itself. Angela Punch McGregor is surprisingly tough as Harry's mother, in her own way not unlike Harry—the forceful surface belies unresolved grief. Overall, the cast is strong, the multicultural mix a reminder how predominantly Anglo our mainstages still are.

Antonio Baldo, Dr Akar's Women, director Ros Horin, designer Catherine Raven, costumes Karin Thorn, lighting Chris Yates, musical director Max Lyandvert; Griffin Theatre Company, Oct 5 – Nov 10

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. web

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2001