A woman sings behind a gauzy white curtain. We cannot see her face, but in her soaring cries we hear her passion. This is Tahirih, born in what is now Iran in the early 1800’s (we don’t know her exact date of birth because authorities burned these documents after her execution). She is a poet, theologist and women’s rights activist, and she has enough followers that the country views her as a national threat to the patriarchal Islam that requires women to be veiled in public.
In the days leading up to her execution, Delia Olam plays people from Tahirih’s life, unfolding her biography, teachings and radical actions. These we see plainly, but Tahirih is always behind the curtain, playing and singing. As the revered and reviled woman is sculpted through the accounts of others whilst her face remains hidden, she becomes mythical and hugely powerful, a revolutionary who’s life is tragically cut short.
Olam’s script and performance meld into a fluid solo performance that is a fitting tribute to such a remarkable woman. Her physical and vocal distinction between the handful of characters she plays is detailed and precise. A servant, Tahirih’s father, an executioner, and a female follower are crafted in detail, and all visited by the audience who go to these people to discover more about this woman who is revolutionary, dangerous, or both. This is excellent clarification of the audience/character relationship in solo performance format – it makes sense with the play’s circumstances and embeds the audience in the action. There is none of the talking out into undefined space or invisible characters that alienates the audience and removes the character from reality, something that often occurs in solo performance. Across these characters in different places and with different relationships to Tahirih, there is still a clear, well-proportioned narrative arc building to an awful end.
The scenes themselves are well-crafted and provide a snapshot of the landscape of attitudes towards women in Iran at the time. They are simply staged and prettily enhanced with candlelight, their simple, calming beauty juxtaposes the inevitable prospect of her death. Transitions are a touch slow; some are smoothed with recorded music whereas others have silent gaps as Olam transforms in and out of Tahirih, who sings and plays between characters. The silences make for a choppy disruption, but this is a minor issue easily forgiven in view of the story’s excellent construction and execution.
To learn about such a remarkable woman through a strong show and performance feels as much of a privilege as it is an education. Olam has fantastic instinct for storytelling and character development, and this detailed show needs hardly any improvement. Do not miss it.
“Just let the wind untie my perfumed hair…” or, Who Is Tahirih? runs through 29th August.
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