Dolah, the protagonist of Unbroken Line, is having an identity crisis. A trainee accountant transplanted to Peckham from his native Malaysia, he’s not sure where his allegiances lie: “I have a Malaysian head that tells me one thing and a British heart that tells me another”. However, while Dolah is confused and uncertain, this sure-footed, big-hearted debut emphatically is not.
Unbroken Line is the debut play from Anglo-Malay actor Jamie Zubairi, whose mixed media projects straddle the line between theatre and art; most recently, he was a participant in These Associations, Tino Sehgal’s commission at the Tate Modern Turbine Hall in which actors approached spectators with their stories. There, he was one of a swarm of about 300 performers. Here, he has a whole space to himself – the upstairs studio of Kennington’s lovely Ovalhouse Theatre – a space which he delightfully dominates.
In this one-man show, Zubairi draws on his interdisciplinary talents economically but effectively. There are two main characters in addition to Dolah, and both of them gain from the use of mixed media. One is Joe, a successful Northern Irish painter; Dolah visits Joe, a former client, amid the elemental terrain of the Giant’s Causeway in order to work out issues surrounding his stifled creativity and sexuality. Here, Zubairi uses live painting, and a tender scene in which Joe and Dolah paint a canvas together is one of the play’s high points. The other character is Wira, a mythical warrior who acts as Dolah’s spiritual advisor, counselling him on how best to reconcile his European tendencies with his Malay roots. This device allows Zubairi to incorporate Balinese dance, choreographed by Mina Aidoo and Ni Made Pujawati; the dance acts as an anchor both for us and Dolah, ensuring that the spectre of Southeast Asia is never far away.
Unbroken Line has been in development for more than two years; an early form of the piece, Skylarking, was performed at the North Devon Theatre Festival in late 2010. Then, the play was busier and had a more unwieldy cast of characters, but the core tale – the personal crisis of Dolah the accountant – remained the same. Since that time, however, one development has given Zubairi’s creation a sense of urgency. One of the most shocking moments of the 2011 London riots was the assault on Ashraf Rossli, a Malaysian student: he was crouching on the floor after an attack at knifepoint, only to be mugged by two men who appeared to be coming to his aid. Though Zubairi makes only one mention of Rossli, it is a significant moment: he weaves the incident brilliantly into wider themes about the hostility of London’s urban environment. One particular detail provides a crowning stroke: Rossli, too, had been studying accountancy.
Some of the play’s sentiments could easily have become prosaic; Wira’s advice to Dolah includes being himself, finding the beauty in the commonplace and looking out for acts of tenderness around him. However, Zubairi’s honesty, humour and sense of wonder ensure that this never happens.
The Christmas theatre season is traditionally a fallow period, with pantomimes and strained festive cheer pushing out more thoughtful, personal pieces. In this climate, Unbroken Line is a beacon amid the fog. What’s more – with its energy, its essential optimism and even, in one touching instant, puppetry – it proves to be surprisingly festive itself.
Unbroken Line continues at Ovalhouse until 15 December. More information can be found on the Ovalhouse website.