Bashir Lazhar

French-Canadian drama Bashir Lazhar draws its tension from the point at which two forms of loneliness intersect – that of an Algerian immigrant trying to make his way in a new world less tolerant than it originally appears, and that of a teacher at the front of a classroom, surrounded and alone. An ideal set-up, then, for a solo performer. The part of the middle-aged asylum seeker struggling to find a sense of personal belonging with a troubled political past behind him is interpreted with emotional truth and impressive physical stamina by Michael Peng. There is another figure onstage, whose mostly mimed interventions fill in the tragedies that dog Lazhar in his home country and his new educational environment, but the bulk of the show is carried by Peng and Peng alone. Fantastic design and direction lighten the load somewhat: the unseen class, colleagues and family members are created through clever uses of sound, stage furniture and, notably, a projector screen on which texts for study are blown up and modified as they become important pieces in the play's narrative jigsaw. These includes LaFontaine's fables of the world's unfairness – uncannily accurate for author Evelyne de la Cheneliere's digs at asylum policy – and Balzac's La Peau de Chagrin, perhaps most relevant in its portrait of a man whose days of luck are limited, ever-contracting, whose time is running out.Perhaps the neatest trick, though, is the use of chalk. The entire back wall-hanging and floor of the stage, as well as Peng's threadbare suit jacket, become covered in it as the play goes on. This integrates the character and audience in the life of the classroom, but also uses the stage as a platform to teach the difficult, often unwelcome lessons, of Lazhar's own story. At one point, the second performer scrawls the word 'enfant' ('child') on the teacher's back, marking him as a man trapped between innocence and experience. If there's one criticism, it's that certain sections where Lazhar interacts with his invisible colleagues are harder to follow; it's simply quite strange to observe the effects of injustice without the other part of the conversation showing in what particular ways the character he meets is bigoted and unjust. But you'll be thinking about the ambiguous ending for hours afterwards, and while it's never didactic, this is probably a play from which we could all learn a lot.

Reviews by Richard O'Brien

The Blurb

Bashir is a substitute teacher in limbo. His new life in Montreal is threatened when his unorthodox classroom methods draw him into explosive territory. Deeply moving. An innovative mix of raw impulse and muted desire. ‘Immensely watchable.’ (VueWeekly.com).