Edinburgh Fringe 2014
“No rehearsals. No director. No boundaries. A different performer reads the script cold for the first time at each performance. Forbidden to leave his native Iran, Nassim Soleimanpour wrote a play which travelled the world in his place.”
We sit and wait. On the stage are two chairs, a ladder and a table with two glasses of water on it. Whilst it looks like the set from a day time chat show, what follows is far from ordinary. The performer and producer (Wolfgang Hoffmann of Aurora Nova) enter the space. The performer is handed a brown envelope; we are told it is the first time he has seen the script and that he knows little or nothing about the performance. The producer leaves, the envelope is opened and the actor begins to speak.
Today’s performer is Mark Weinman (one man show Captain Amazing) and, like us, he is apprehensive and unsure what to expect. Reading the text, Weinman introduces himself but it is quickly revealed that in using ‘I’ he does not refer to himself. Like the other performers of this piece, Weinman is a vessel through which the writer, Nassim Soleimanpour can communicate; a way of traveling the world and exercising freedom beyond the limits of his political confinement.
What follows is an hour of meta-theatre in which both audience and performer are toyed with and controlled. We are all at the mercy of the writer, who, despite his absence, wields an authority in this space that makes his presence intensely felt.
It is an intelligent script which explores an impressive number of themes. Through discussing ideas, playing with form, telling parables and stories – Soleimanpour analyzes the dynamic relationships that exist within the performance space and expertly engages with an array of issues that extend far beyond the confines of the theatre. How does the past shape the present? Why do we conform? Who really has control?
Expectations are deconstructed as the traditional power relationships of the theatrical space are thrown out of balance. Unfamiliar with the script, the performer is in a vulnerable position and there is no knowing what the next page might bring. As audience members are asked to participate and, on occasion, assume control of the script, a sense of equality emerges, coupled with an awareness of the audience/performer divide.
At points, the writing can feel dense, some of the ideas lost in delivery. However, the content of the script is so rich that what is lost is made up for tenfold. It is extremely bold but everyone is rewarded for the risk that Soleimanpour has taken and, to his credit, he manages to challenge both audience and performer without humiliating us and undermining the integrity of the piece.
Weinman did an impressive job of dealing with this difficult piece. On occasion I felt he could have been more assertive, giving clearer instructions so the audience knew what was expected of them. However, it is difficult to criticize him given the context of the performance. He engaged with the audience and put us at ease in this unchartered territory. What’s more, he did not undermine the text by placing himself at the centre of the performance; demonstrating generosity as a performer and a willingness to take chances that encouraged the rest of us to contribute when required.
For me, the show is an example of why theatre is so important. The power that writing can give, the quality of ideas that can be communicated in a given space. It is difficult to discuss, having never seen anything quite like it. The closest comparison I can think of is Tim Crouch’s ‘An Oak Tree’ which, whilst dealing with different themes, utilized a similar structure – each night a new performer would take to the stage with Tim Crouch and read the script cold for the first time.
Soleimanpour pushes the boundaries of what we should expect, demonstrating further ways in which theatre can be utilized to empower disenfranchised groups. When used in this way, theatre is not mere entertainment, but a place where ideas can be exchanged and voices heard where they might otherwise fall silent.
I was deeply affected by the performance and talking to people after the show, it is clear that I was not alone. Having a quick word with Weinman and John Yates (an audience member who briefly assumed responsibility of the script), it is refreshing to see that they are equally excited by what has just happened. An outstanding experience.