Any preliminary scepticism we might have over means and message is disarmed and the power of theatre to leap over boundaries to find new expressive freedoms is affirmed. The political critique is for once left allusive and oblique. Nassim means ‘breeze’, and as a traditional Iranian proverb states: ‘A net can never catch a breeze’.

“I was trapped in a traditional dialogue in the theatre. That’s part of the history of any revolution in the Arts. We forget creative approaches to a medium. To keep this conversation alive we need to shift its paradigms.” Nassim Solaimanpour

One of the many virtues attendant on the refitting of the Bush Theatre last year is the emergence of a studio space for the performance of small-scale experimental works that would be enriched by a more intimate setting. This studio is ideally suited for the new play by Nassim Solaimanpour, which requires the most modern technology while also being quite at home in the dimensions of a room which does not require rhetorical projection.

While there are deep issues in play here, particularly concerning the unique power of language to divide and unite, at base this is a universal story, in fact a child’s bedtime story that resonates inwardly as much as it makes a case outwardly. With gentle yet confident guidance from the players, and a degree of audience participation, we are left with much to think about without any sense of ideological bludgeoning or crude manipulation in any particular cause.

Prime credit lies with the playwright himself who presides and controls, but never speaks. Solaimanpour has deservedly won plaudits for his first play, White Rabbit, Red Rabbit (2010), which made a clever virtue out of the necessity of the refusal of the authorities to let him leave Iran. Instead, he sent the play out into the world to be performed by an actor unseen and unrehearsed, just as he does here. What could have been a disastrously misconceived gamble turned into a great success, raising important questions about how authors can or should control their material, how much actors need directors, and how the individual can break down the barriers of state censorship.

The evening begins with a number of conceits that in other hands might seem tricksy and artificial, but which here acquire lucidity early on. A large cardboard box sits on a table, and a projector screen faces the audience. There are a couple of chairs and a microphone on a stand. A producer announces that the play is in the box and will be delivered unseen and unrehearsed by a different actor on each night. This evening’s actor is Sabrina Mahfouz.

In fact the box just contains a single sheet and from those instructions an image appears on the projector screen, an image of a pile of text, each page carefully typed with a single sentence, either of text, or stage directions in italics. A pair of male hands turns the pages as the actor delivers the lines and gradually gets into her stride.

After some preliminary limbering up, the actor engineers encouragement from the audience to disappear off-stage though still on camera, and returns with the playwright and his text which is then projected again onto the screen. There is more gadgetry to come as much play is made of cameras in phones, either as a record of pictures or as a way of crossing boundaries. The author texts his wife, and we all participate in a call to his mother in Iran before the evening is out.

However, this is not the queasy intrusiveness of Dame Edna at work here. Through the technology and the visual inventiveness of the author, and the skilful facilitation of the actor we gradually piece together the author’s personal back-story and the reasons for this degree of artifice in presentation. This is Nassim’s own life story of growing up in Iran, his relationship to his mother, to language, and more broadly his changing sense of identity as a writer, compelled to see his works performed in every language other than Farsi, his own native tongue.

In fact what we have here is an intricate set of paradoxes surrounding the power of language, culture, and politics to both create and bridge divides, all refracted through memories of the author’s childhood. The technical bravura implicitly demonstrates how inextricably and overpoweringly connected we are in a world where no action can be considered truly private for long. The benefits of access this provides are balanced out by the greater intrusive reach of prurient press and the public appetites that feed it, and the increased ease of scrutiny available to states over the lives of their citizens.

But alongside this sensitivity to the way in which social media and general technical mastery have changed our relationship to the expressive powers of language is an ultimately redeeming and encouraging story of the how universal values and loyalties can still be communicated across all the complicating boundaries. In other words there is as much message here as there is as focus on the medium.

The audience and the actor engage in learning a children’s story in Farsi. It is a gentle and gently amusing process. The fact that Farsi is read from right to left sets some unexpected challenges for the actor, and mistakes on all sides are ‘punished’ by consuming a tomato from a generous heap provided by the stage manager. Along the way we explore the traditional concerns of the deracinated migrant: different food, language challenges, points of contact and difference, all are marked and explored in thoughtful and accessible ways.
Language games have a serious purpose: they turn out to be the building blocks of a story that charms and inspires as a profound demonstration of how languages can with sufficient effort be learned and used to feed a common understanding. The narrative finally read to Nassim’s mother back in Iran is a story that all performers and audience members can relate to and understand. No one in the room is a foreigner any more, as the writer emphasises.

As a geographical outsider the author used his first play produced outside Iran to challenge the conventions of theatre and turn his isolation into an opportunity. In this work, both solipsistic and adventurous, he further deconstructs the traditional ways in which a play is presented while using a subject matter that has both philosophical depth, if you want it, and an accessible innocent charm. A possible comparison with which we are familiar would be Saint-Exupéry’s A Little Prince. Any preliminary scepticism we might have over means and message is disarmed and the power of theatre to leap over boundaries to find new expressive freedoms is affirmed. The political critique is for once left allusive and oblique. Nassim means ‘breeze’, and as a traditional Iranian proverb states: ‘A net can never catch a breeze’.

Any preliminary scepticism we might have over means and message is disarmed and the power of theatre to leap over boundaries to find new expressive freedoms is affirmed. The political critique is for once left allusive and oblique. Nassim means ‘breeze’, and as a traditional Iranian proverb states: ‘A net can never catch a breeze’.

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Tim Hochstrasser
A historian who lectures on early modern intellectual and cultural history at the LSE. He has a long-standing commitment to and love of all the visual, musical, dramatic and decorative arts, and to opera above all, as a unifying vehicle for all of them. He has previously reviewed for BritishTheatre.com and also writes for playstosee. By day you may find him in a library or classroom, but by night in an opera or playhouse…perhaps with a cabaret chaser…