Brighton Festival 2014
From his birthplace in Iran, via Paris to Montreal, where he now lives, Soleymanlou charts his own journey and ponders that of today’s Persian youth, who fight daily for their liberty, their freedom of speech and their lives. Along the way he attempts to answer a recurring question: how can you embrace what you are without rejecting where you came from?
Mani Soleymanlou has many different identities. He has spent his life as a perpetual emigrant/immigrant, leaving Iran as a child, leaving France as a teen, leaving Toronto for Quebec as a young adult. He always has to explain his name, his accent, where he is from, but where is he from? He knows he is Iranian by birth, but throughout the show he is questioning whether he is actually Iranian. After all, he doesn’t read or write Persian, he doesn’t know anything about Iran, in fact – the only Iranian thing he can tell you about is the food.
The subject matter and politics of One are very interesting – questioning, unpicking and examining what it means to be of a country and without one’s country, especially one as controversial as Iran. I certainly appreciated the potted history of the installation of the Shah in the 50s and the subsequent 1979 revolution, not to mention the recent political uprisings and the shocking ‘election’ of Ahmadinejad who did not receive the majority vote in the 2009 election, yet forced his way into power anyway.
Yet for me, this was still just ‘news’, ‘history’ from a far off country, known to be riddled with inequality and injustice, which, despite the cries for help from its people via horrendous images of violence on You Tube, still fades from our minds the minute we switch from BBC News to watch the new episode of Family Guy. What Soleymanlou managed to convey was the pain, confusion and discombobulation caused by his dual identity. One the one hand he is like the Canadians he lives amongst; Western educated, secular – separate and disconnected from this oppressive foreign land thousands of miles away. Yet on the other hand, this is his heritage – his family still live there, and he remembers how as a boy he huddled in his grandparent’s basement as missiles rained down on Tehran. How do you reconcile these two identities he asks. The answer – make a theatre show about it.
He is an energetic performer, but at times this gets in the way of the content. I was not convinced by the performance style – abrupt announcements of new scenes, and many sentences left unfinished with him staring off into the middle distance. This was clearly meant to demonstrate his uncertainty about who he was and where he had come from, which worked to a point, but was overused. He was also incredibly fast in his delivery, some of which helped to give the piece energy, but on the whole felt exhausting and left my companion baffled about the majority of the content of the piece as she had failed to hear 90% of it.
The set also didn’t quite work for me. Rows of plain grey chairs, felt largely under-utilised and restrictive and didn’t really help convey much of a sense of place. The brochure copy also promised the culture, colour and scents of Iran, which were not really delivered. However, the themes of the piece were interesting, being sensitively and amusingly tackled, striking the right balance between autobiography, comedy and political commentary, and Soleymanlou is a passionate and energetic performer, who I think just needs to reign himself in a little and add a few more shades of grey to his delivery.