Edinburgh review: Nassim (Traverse Theatre)

Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour’s new play has a different actor performing his script every night

Nassim Soleimanpour in Nassim
Nassim Soleimanpour in Nassim
© David Monteith-Hodge

Nassim Soleimanpour’s new play repeats the trick of his best-known work, White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, in having a different actor for each performance deliver a script they’ve never seen before. On press night, it’s writer and actor Chris Thorpe, who is a warm, witty, generous mouthpiece for Solemanpour’s simple, sweet story about mothers and mother-tongues.

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit was born of necessity – Soleimanpour couldn’t leave Iran, but his play text could. But the playwright is present here for Nassim, even if he doesn’t speak, and at first remains a little coyly hidden.

Rather than read a script in-hand, the 400 pages of Nassim – don’t worry, there’s only a line or two per page – are projected live onto a screen at the back of the stage for the actor to read. Hands, which turn out to be the playwright’s, turn each page over, like a giant storybook. Of course, that means the audience can read along too. By including stage directions which the actor doesn’t deliver, a cute, half-spoken dialogue between playwright and performer unfurls in front of us.

The script gently encourages the performer and interacts with them, rather than being just straight prompts, while the actor appears to ‘interrupt’ the play with questions. There’s a gentle humour to this winning, whimsical set-up, with the audience always in on the joke, the actor discovering the play at the same time as they do. But as Nassim progresses, the interactions between actor and author get closer, more tender. We move from just words on a page to human interaction when Soleimanpour himself comes to the stage to turn the pages of 'Act 2'.

Soleimanpour has never had his work performed in his native Farsi. And that means his mother has never heard his work. Nassim sets out to right that wrong – Soleimanpour has promised his mother her own play, and he sets about teaching the actor, and the audience, some basic Farsi. There’s a little audience interaction and some light amusement at our clumsy attempts to wrap tongues around very foreign sounds.

There are nice parallels here between child-like picture-book reading lessons and the kind of archetypal ‘once upon a time’ storytelling Soleimanpour is tapping into with a tale of his own youth, one that equates notions of home with motherhood. But while this is all very charmingly done, it’s not always not terribly profound. Being told that languages can bring us together or tear us apart is so bald as to feel a tad mawkish. Heart-tugging in the moment, audiences are indeed likely to remember the Farsi word for mother – Mumun – for some time, but beyond that there’s not masses here likely to lodge in the memory.

Nassim runs at the Traverse until 27 Aug, at varying times, and at the Bush Theatre, London 7 to 16 September.

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