Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo Adelaide Theatre Guild 2021Adelaide University Theatre Guild. Little Theatre. 9 May 2021


Cheek by jowl but worlds apart, the American servicemen man their post beside the tiger’s cage. The zoo must be protected. The proud old tiger paces to and fro in his cage. Each is living in their own hell of war, the ingenuous young soldiers unlikeably crass in their talk of sex and looting. The tiger, talking in a fugue of indignation about how the war had enabled the loathed lions some freedom in the city. And the tension of the 2003 Baghdad war zone is artfully woven by these hapless characters.

And then, the explosive moment of conflict. No blame. Just a maimed soldier, a boorish thug empowered and a dead tiger.


And so the great discussions of this remarkable play unfold. The afterlife, as is mooted by playwright Rajiv Joseph, is a realm of vast enlightenment. Everything one should have known in life becomes instantly accessible, albeit not everyone can see the dead in their visitations.  Language and belief barriers slip away. Remorse and enlightenment arise. Of all creatures, it is the tiger whose existential awareness soars to the greatest heights. He is wise, wonderful, challenging, and intensely interesting. Or is it David Grybowski’s performance that makes it so? This role was played by Robin Williams on Broadway and one can imagine his embodiment and compare it to Grybowski’s. Did Williams have that nuanced underplay? Did he bring the stage to life as he prowled? It is a wonderful thing to witness great performances, and this is the reward for seeing the Guild’s production of Bengal Tiger.


The play earned assorted acclaims in the US and some mixed reviews. From its Adelaide premier under Nick Fagan’s direction, it emerges as weighted by the overwritten portrayal of Uday Hussein. This forces young Noah Fernandes to spend a lot of time shouting at the hapless interpreter-cum-gardener, who is a pivotal cross-cultural link in the plot. He is very sensitively played by Nigel Tripodi who has also to speak a lot of dialogue in Arabic, as does Anita Zamberlan Canala as the hysterical Iraqi woman.  The use of the two languages and the barriers it imposes in war are superbly emphasised in this play, among the many aspects of the cruelty and misery of war. Adam Tuominen and Oliver de Rohan play the two Americans in fairly ruthless and maybe clichéd depiction of the worst of human behaviour in occupation.  Both are powerful performances from fine actors. Indeed, this high standard is hallmark to the production. It’s a gruelling play and Fagan has cut no corners in creating moments of desperate fear and hysteria. They are balanced by the dissertations of the characters in their living and un-living worlds, most particularly, the tiger who is poignant and funny and wise and, oh, so unknowably dangerous.


Good set by Tony Clancy, terrific sound by Sean Smith with striking Arabic hip hop tracks. It’s a fine production of a cerebral anti-war play. It is long and overly wordy, but a must-see just for the sublime tiger-tiger-burning-bright performance of David Grybowski.


Samela Harris

When: 9 to 22 May

Where: Little Theatre