Edinburgh Fringe 2016
Experience the shocking, beautiful true story of Tahirih, a Persian poetess and the first female suffrage martyr. Captivating theatre starring Delia Olam, heightened by evocative live music. Using Tahirih’s original poetry penned before her execution in 1852, Olam embodies other key players in this unknown true story: the father, the friend, the servant and the executioner.
Billowing veils, Persian artwork, cushions and rugs and candles dotted about the stage come together simply but effectively, creating an evocative Middle Eastern scene fitting for Persia in the 1800s. A hauntingly played cello takes us into melodies sung by the Iranian poet and radical feminist Tahirih played by Delia Olam who has impressively written, composed and performed the entire show based on the true accounts of this once forgotten heroine.
As we start to build up a sense of the impact of Tahirih’s words on family, friends, followers and adversaries through the other characters that Olam single-handedly plays, we begin to learn about her political teachings and philosophical discussions, mainly unheard for women in this historical context. Tahirih’s poems set to Olam’s original score are rich and sensual, akin at times to Rumi and Hafiz. Sometimes though the nuances of Persian ambience were lost as the music, though moving and beautiful, had an acoustic lightness to it that in some sets felt more western in mood. Olam’s performance is a delicious full bodied experience of vastly different male and female characters that she creates with mastery for us, stepping in and out fluently from old weary traditional father to young devastated disciple to harshly violent executioner.
Olam has devised complex and ambitious scripting to explore Tahirih through the different eyes of the other characters, the shock in the men, the admiration and fear of the women, the adoration juxtaposed against the shame of her father. Although this colourful exploration of our protagonist had impact, I would have liked to have more of a rounded sense of her, embodied through interactions with others rather than mostly through her song. We had an awareness of her standing calmly as a modern rebellious woman gazing with understanding upon her challengers. But this felt ethereal and difficult to reach; I yearned for something more tangible in her character, a taste of her gutsyness as she talked about women’s equality and embracing other religions, which at this time and in this cultural context were, and still are in some parts of the world, dangerous and courageous words from a woman.
The execution scene was particularly moving and difficult to watch. The scene of her father pouring tea was a delight and welcomed, delivered with a skilful humour that perhaps could be more developed as this gave a further one dimensionality to this element of the performance. The humour and skilful engagement with the audience lifted the energy of the piece, which had started to feel somewhat formulaic and monotone at times. With work on overall pacing and some musical editing and fleshing out of the control character this piece has potential to be outstanding. As it is, it’s many virtues make it very highly recommended work.