Reviews/Perth Festival/Theatre

Oh! What a journey

22 February 2018

Perth Festival review: Nassim by Nassim Soleimanpour ·
Studio Underground, 20 February ·
Review: Xan Ashbury ·

“Nassim means breeze – I knew when I named you, I could not hold on to you forever.”

There are plenty of touching moments in this unconventional and enlightening performance but it was that portentous line that really stirred my emotions.

This is a play about Nassim Soleimanpour’s mother tongue, Farsi. And at the heart of that is his relationship with his mother. We are told that it was on her lap, on the balcony of their home in Shiraz, Iran, that young Nassim learnt to read.

For years, the playwright was forbidden to leave the country of his birth because he refused military service on the grounds of conscience. Now he lives in Berlin.

Soleimanpour used to send off his plays “in big brown envelopes” for them to be performed overseas. Despite his success – Nassim’s work has been translated into 20 languages – there is a palpable sadness when the audience learns that his work has never been performed in Farsi in the country of his birth. Importantly, his mother has never heard his work in his mother tongue.

By the end of the performance, this painful issue has partially been addressed (though not resolved, obviously) thanks to the wonders of technology. But, oh, what a journey along the way. One full of discomfort and humour and longing and empathy.

Central to that journey is a special guest who reads Soleimanpour’s script, sight unseen. At the performance I saw, the willing victim (it’s a tough gig!) was home-grown indie-pop star Scarlett Stevens, of San Cisco.

Throughout the performance, the pages of the script are projected onto a screen at the back of the stage. We see the playwright’s hands, turning the pages of the script, and occasionally writing words or drawing pictures. Part way through the performance, Nassim joins his guest on stage, with a bowl of cherry tomatoes.

When he was learning to read in Farsi, his mother played the tomato game with him: If he got a word wrong, he would have to eat a cherry tomato. (“Sometimes I would literally pee tomato juice.”) Now it was Steven’s turn to learn to read in Farsi…
Anyone who has picked up a phrase book while they are travelling will understand how difficult it is to be understood. And yes, Stevens (and the three volunteers from the audience) had to eat a fair few tomatoes.

I was reminded of the last time I saw Stevens on stage. It was at the Astor Theatre last July, accompanying my 13-year-old son to see San Cisco. I have never seen my son happier or more alive than on that night. That image of his arms swaying above him as he shouted the words to “Beach” – at one with the crowd – will be forever treasured. How much pleasure and sense of belonging we derive from a shared cultural experience – and how much pain is suffered from exclusion or invisibility.

Though clearly enthusiastic, Steven’s discomfort was obvious – that was the point. Even the most talented and intelligent people seem out of their depth and a little foolish struggling to be understood in an unfamiliar language. That is not to suggest that the scenario was cruel. Stevens took Soleimanpour’s playful humour with good grace and we were always laughing with her.

At other moments, the script’s gravity brought respectful silence. When Soleimanpour wrote Stevens’ name in Farsi, I could hear his pen squeaking on the paper.

“A writer’s heart always beats in their mother tongue,” we were told.

The Iranians in the audience – who’d made themselves known with some lively banter – were first to their feet at the end of the show. Their sense of sheer joy and delight was beautiful to witness – just like my son’s at the San Cisco gig. It is impossible to be unmoved by Soleimanpour’s resilience and inventiveness.

‘Nassim’ plays until 25 February, with a different guest for each performance.

Pictured top: Nassim Soleimanpour. Photo: David Monteith-Hodge.

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Author —
Xan Ashbury

Xan Ashbury is a teacher who spent a decade writing for newspapers and magazines in Australia and the UK. She won the Shorelines Writing for Performance Prize in 2014-17. Her favourite piece of playground equipment is the flying fox.

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