Untangling The Complexity Of Fatherhood: A Review Of Bijan Sheibani’s ‘The Cord’

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Image by Manuel Harlan

★★★★

“I came across this stuff about how the baby doesn’t realise it’s separate from anything, or anyone… It can’t tell what’s him and what’s not him.” This line stands out in The Cord, a title which incites a number of references–the umbilical cord, the often-fraught connections between the people in our lives, and potentially a noose or tether. In Bijan Sheibani’s skillfully directed play about first-time fatherhood, all of these meanings are up for grabs.

The Cord follows protagonist Ash (Irfan Shamji) over the first few months of his new son’s life, trying to navigate this new arrangement with his wife Anya (Eileen O’Higgins). Meanwhile, his mother Jane (Lucy Black) appears periodically from the side-lines, similarly besotted with her first grandchild and undergoing a transition of her own – “Grandma at forty-seven! Isn’t that some kind of record these days?” As Ash’s struggle to adapt becomes increasingly blatant, the widening chasm between Ash and the two women plays out in full.

The direction is particularly admirable for its smart use of the Bush’s Holloway Theatre. In the round, the theatre feels intimate and often resembles a carpeted boxing ring, which seems especially fitting given the scenes of arguments and fighting that escalate and fluctuate wildly throughout the play. Different coloured lighting blends and drifts in and out–in lighter scenes, a warmer calm hue is used, in more dramatic scenes, it’s deep blue. Paired with the use of cello music from Colin Alexander, as well as the actors playing their parts barefoot, the space feels suspended, untethered and detached. You get the feeling you’re in a surreal otherworld, which adeptly mirrors the surreal state of mind of a first-time parent. Ash suggests the baby is experiencing a state of being “separate from anything or anyone,” but presumably it’s Ash who feels this separation despite being tethered to his suddenly ample roster of responsibilities that’s only continuing to grow.

The actors perform their parts well, with Shamji portraying Ash’s anxiousness effectively; you feel nothing but sympathy even as his behaviour grows increasingly erratic. Lucy Black is particularly believable as Jane as revelations of her own troubled nascent days of parenting come to light. It’s Sheibani’s script that shines the most though, and credit to him for addressing the complex adjustment period men undergo as they become fathers, a topic that’s not often explored or examined much at all. It’s a risky subject to tackle without falling down the meninism trap, but Sheibani avoids this completely – Ash’s turbulent time isn’t pitted against Anya’s for point scoring, it’s its own complicated process. Anya and Jane’s invisible alliance, automatically unsympathetic to what he might be going through, makes Ash feel particularly alone, and you can’t help but feel for him.

Dextrously acted and directed, with a script that packs a punch, The Cord is brimming with poignancy about the surreal world of new parenthood. It’s a conversation well worth having, since we often don’t want to admit the reality that babies entirely upend our lives, and as humans don’t take to change easily, this adaptation is a taxing cross to bear. Sheibani’s play helps shifts that conversation further, and shows that being a parent is arguably the toughest yet most rewarding assignment around. Why would we ever deny a struggle to adjust?

The Cord will be performed at Bush Theatre until 25 May.

Words by James Morton


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