Perth Festival Diary 3#: Nassim
All cities have day shifts and night shifts. Walking through Perth’s city centre to and from Nassim Soleimanpour’s Nassim I saw the changing of the guard. On the way, the streets were full of city workers: women in heels and strappy tops, men in business suits walking fast, barking into their mobiles. On the way back, the daytime city had withdrawn like a tide from a shore, leaving the streets to the people who live there.
The Noongar people gathered in the Mall, on the land which they have never ceded but which has been taken from them. The homeless, the poor, the bewildered. The middle aged couple, their hair crew-cut and dyed shocking blond, hunting down cigarette butts on the pavements so they could recycle the tobacco.
I wondered how it would be possible for all those people to see Nassim. I felt, very strongly, that they should have the chance to find out whether or not they liked it. Nassim is a gentle and beautiful eighty minutes of theatre, a fairy tale about exile, home and belonging written by a man who has a profound faith in the possibilities of connection that art can create.
“For a moment,” says Soleimanpour in Nassim, “nobody is a stranger.” And for that moment, it is true. A true moment can be so important. It can change lives. Everyone should have a chance to know these true moments.
As soon as you think something like that, the impassable structures of our culture become nakedly apparent. Nassim itself has no barriers at all: from the very beginning it is open and wholly legible. There is almost nothing that anybody needs to know in advance (one thing, you need to know how to read English, though I suspect even that wouldn’t be a huge problem with this show). This is theatre that teaches its audience how to watch it.
But you have to know that the show exists. You have to be able to afford a ticket, which is impossible if you can’t even afford a place to live. You have to enter intimidating temples of culture that are full of well-dressed people. Those outside the social codes, those who feel they don’t belong in these places, often feel rebuked and belittled by these structures. That’s if they ever hear about these events in the first place.
Not everyone can see work like this. It feels wrong.
In Farsi, the name Nassim means “breeze”. “You can’t keep a breeze in a net,” says Nassim Soleimanpour. Like his name, his work won’t permit itself to be defined or categorised: it gets filed under “multidisciplinary”, which seems like a lot of syllables for work with this ease and transparency.
Nassim has the apparently artless simplicity that emerges only from artfulness. It begins with nobody (except the playwright) knowing anything: even the actor has never seen the script before.
An Iranian playwright, Soleimanpour made his name with White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, a text that he sent out into the world when he was unable to leave Iran. (As a conscientious objector he refused national service and so was not permitted a passport). The play became a cause célèbre: the conceit, again, was that the actor, a new performer each night, had never seen the script before they walked onto the stage.
Some of the biggest names in show business – Stephen Fry, F. Murray Abraham, Ken Loach and Whoopi Goldberg – have walked onto Soleimanpour’s stage. I saw Catherine McClements perform this play at the Malthouse in Melbourne in 2013 and, like everyone else, was charmed.
What Soleimanpour created in White Rabbit, Red Rabbit and extends in Nassim is a kind of instructional theatre. The idea of encountering a text for the first time in performance could easily be just a gimmick, or even a sadistic exercise in making an actor uncomfortable (there’s a little good-humoured mockery) but it’s made with such thoughtfulness and, in the end, such real feeling, that its form becomes a profound exploration on human connection.
The performer (the night I went it was indie musician Scarlett Stevens) walks on stage and is told to open an envelope, take out the text inside and read it. The envelope she is instructed to open is in fact a huge box, from which she draws out a single sheet of paper that instructs her to look at the screen. She is to read out the text she sees on screen (but not if it’s in italics, because those are stage directions). The text is written on A5 sheets of paper, which are being moved by a pair of hands. The hands belong to the playwright himself, who is back stage.
And so the performance begins: “Yeki bood, yeki nabood”, which, as the English speakers in the audience learn, is Farsi for “Once upon a time”. It would be wrong to reveal what happens, which hampers me a little in writing about it. So much of the enchantment of this show exists in its gradual seduction of everyone present – the audience members, the performers, the production staff – into the present moment, and huge part of that seduction is the inventiveness with which its maintains its perpetual slight surprise. For all its apparent simplicity, this is very ingenious theatre.
It’s a show about language, exile and connection: in particular, it’s about how language can both separate and connect us. And it uses its form to open up the possibility of a real, if brief, moment of connection between everyone in the room. Everyone should see it.
Nassim, written and performed by Nassim Soleimanpour, directed by Omar Elerian. Design by Rhys Jarman, sound design by James Swadlo, lighting design by Rajiv Pattani. With guest performers Scarlett Stevens, Andrea Gibbs, Humphrey Bower, Richard Fidler, Matt Dyktynski and Sisonke Msimang. Nassim Soleimanpour and Bush Theatre at the Studio Underground, Perth Festival. Until February 25.
Alison Croggon flew to Perth as a guest of the Perth Festival