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I’ve seen Phil Porter’s ‘The Boy with Two Hearts’

One of my pet peeves with any play (or book or film) is when I’m told within the text what I’m supposed to be feeling. There is nothing that does quite so much to telegraph a lack of confidence in the work than to tell the audience how to respond. I’m afraid The Boy with Two Hearts falls into exactly this trap.

This is a stage adaptation by Phil Porter of Hamed and Hassim Amiri’s memoir recounting their family’s harrowing journey from Afghanistan to the UK. The family was forced to flee Herat in 2000, after the Taliban ordered the killing of the matriarch for speaking out on women’s rights. Complicating matters, Hamed and Hassim’s brother Hussein has a serious congenital heart problem.

The play follows the parents and three young children as they cross Europe, trying to reach the UK for both family safety and NHS treatment for Hussein. I saw the play in my living room via National Theatre at Home, which is never quite the same experience as being in the same room as the performers.

The staging was admirably inventive, making use of projections to allow some dialogue to take place in Farsi with translations integrated into the scene. The show was scored throughout, with a singer (and co-composer) Elaha Soroor wandering around the set providing an elegiac backing of Afghan song.

The overall effect was moving, and it brought real human insight and compassion to the topic of asylum. It is well worth watching or going to see.

But I did have issues.

Firstly, a minor nitpicky staging issue which irritated me repeatedly. We are introduced at the start of the play to the fact that the family sits in a circle to eat and talk. Because they are on stage, they are not actually sat in a circle while they are talking about being sat in a circle, presumably because we wouldn’t see much and half the cast would have their backs to us. This is fair enough, except for the fact that they then call back repeatedly throughout the play—including in the very climax—to the circle. I don’t think it works to repeatedly call back to an image that the production never quite delivered.

Secondly, and I think this is a book-to-stage translation thing, there is a problematic lack of detail in some parts. I spent much of the first half wondering what the main character’s motivations were, partly because we are told nothing of their background.

Thirdly, the big one. Don’t tell me what to feel. This is a sad play. It is also a play that highlights stunning hypocrisy in the way we treat people and the way we collectively choose to view the world. We are only happy for the NHS to treat a severely sick kid once he’s completed a life-threatening journey across a continent: how can we be so cruel? And yet, the audience is directly addressed and told that this is not a sad play, and that it is actually a play about it being wonderful that everyone looks after each other.

Issues aside—I’d still recommend it.

The Boy with Two Hearts is streaming on National Theatre at Home until 14 December.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, Theatre, , , , , .

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