Ismail, or Smiley to his friends, is obsessed with cricket and this year he is determined to be the youngest ever player to make it into his elite school’s First XI cricket team. Fired up with the confidence and enthusiasm of a 15-year-old, he is convinced that he will cause batting records to fall and will enter the hall of fame via Wisden, the Cricketer’s Almanac, published annually since 1864. What could possibly stand in his way?!
Duck is a heartwarming, elegantly developed story that pulls the audience into its embrace before subtly and almost imperceptibility developing an undercurrent of racism. Ismail, played expertly by Omar Bynon, delivers his monologue accompanied by the soundtrack of an Aussie-style cricket commentary which is humorous yet deftly draws attention to the cascading emotions experienced by the boy. Alongside this, beautifully hand-drawn illustrations of ducks (simultaneously the term for a batsman’s dismissal with a score of zero, and the name for – well, those quacking birds that sit on a pond to which Ismail often turns to for solace), are presented against the back wall. Captions accompanying the action further enhance the accessibility of the piece.
Ismail is a British Muslim, born in London to Muslim parents who came to England in 1970, and he is being educated at one England’s finest public schools. He feels British, and definitely speaks no Urdu, but is often asked who he will support in the upcoming Ashes series: England or India? The new cricket teacher, Eagles, has form himself in the school’s record books and is a little harsh on first meeting Smiley. Is that racism or just a strict teacher who wants to develop resilience? As the story unfolds it is clear that it is indeed racism, but the accomplishment of the plot lies in its ability to mask those initial signs. Smiley is undermined and starts to make a few errors. Slowly his confidence fades, and his play becomes more error-prone. Now the teacher’s jibes have empowered a whole team to turn on him, to the extent he becomes isolated, uncharacteristically lashes out, starts to skip school and loses his infectious enthusiasm. And that depiction is clever, because much societal racism which creates difference is insidious, imperceptible even. It’s almost harder to deal with than outright poisonous hate speak, and yet is prevalent throughout much of society.
The narrative is set in 2005, in the run up to the Ashes of that year, but more importantly, prior to the terrorist attacks of 7 July, at which point any – but particularly male – Muslims were treated with suspicion and susceptible to random arrest. Testimony from Muslims who were affected by this, either because they were on the scene as the attacks unfolded or were targeted afterwards, is incorporated into the performance offering both change of tone and a hefty dose of realism to the spectator.
Duck is thought-provoking and moving: the energy of the action and speech ebbs and flows to reflect the plot and the human story shines through, encapsulated as it is by the enduring and appealing character of Ismail himself.
Written by: maatin
Directed by: Imy Wyatt Corner
Produced by: Katy Galloway Productions and maatin