‘No rehearsals. No preparation. Just a sealed envelope and a different actor every performance reading a script for the first time.’ On 20 August 2017, Nir Paldi, actor and co-artistic director of Theatre Ad Infinitum, took part in Nassim, the latest work by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour.
Home. Mother. Boy. Balcony. Tomatoes. Photos. Salam. Hello. Language.
Nassim has a special theatrical premise: everyday another actor performs the show knowing nothing about what it is or what is going to take place until the show starts.
If you are hoping to perform in the show – stop reading now!
The experience of performing in Nassim moved me profoundly and is one of the strongest things I have experienced in theatre.
I had a few things on my mind as I was walking to the Traverse Theatre that morning. One of them was the sweat stains developing under my armpits. How can I get on stage with these patches? I was also thinking about my Israeliness and Nassim’s Iranianess, the fact that I am going to be reading out his words and his instructions in my second language. I’ll need to read a text in English, for the first time in front of a paying audience. Surely I’ll mess it up!?! The sweat stains are getting bigger as I get closer to the theatre…
But quickly after the show starts my nerves subside. In Nassim’s universe, we are all foreigners.
Home. Nassim introduces himself to the audience by showing us his passport: ‘Have you ever seen an Iranian passport before?’ I’m reading out from the projected script. My answer is: No, I’ve never seen one before. I want to ask the audience at the Traverse Theatre if they ever saw an Israeli passport. Nassim shows us through the many visas on his passport. For a moment he rests on a German visa and then carries on through all his British ones. ‘He’s got almost as many as I do,’ I say. I was brought up in Israel and although it is my country of birth, and although I lived there for 23 years, it never felt quite like home. Now, after living in Europe for 13 years, when I visit Israel, I feel like a tourist.
Mother. ‘Mother is home’ I read out at the end of Nassim. I read it out shortly after I finish speaking to Nassim’s mum on Skype. I speak to her in the few Farsi sentences I learned along with the audience at the Traverse Theatre (an audience that looks to be predominantly White–European). I’m thinking about my mum. About missing having her in my life and about how much she misses me. How much she’d have loved it if I ‘came back home’ to Israel. But it never felt like home. And here? Sometimes… And sometimes I’m performing a play in English in front of a predominantly White-European audience and some of them get irritated when I keep reading out loud the stage direction in italic although Nassim told me not to.
Balcony. One of the things I miss the most about Israel is having a home with a balcony. A warm summer evening, some olives and beer or watermelon and feta cheese, sitting with a friend and chatting the night away… A balcony, an extension of the inside into the outside. As if the house had a beauty spot. A balcony is still ‘your space’ but it’s not quite indoors. The closest thing we have here is a conservatory. But, I find, they are too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter.
Tomatoes. Cherry tomatoes were created by an Israeli farmer in a kibbutz in the desert. The Israeli government keeps saying that. Apparently, they hand out leaflets about it in international conferences advertising that ‘fact’. It’s part of the Hasbara, the Israeli propaganda machine: Think about tomatoes and forget the occupation. Think about gay-rights and forget the occupation. Think about art and forget the occupation. The acidity of cherry tomatoes always gives me heartburn but as I played the tomatoes game with Nassim, just as he used to play with his mum in Iran, where I had to eat a tomato every time I pronounced a Farsi word incorrectly, for some reason my stomach was fine.
Salam. Hello in Farsi, we learn. But Salam for me is mainly the Arabic word for peace. I have a T-shirt with the word written in three languages and a dove holding an olive branch. On stage I cry. I miss peace like I miss home – the kind of missing that one feels towards something that might have never really existed or did but will never be here again. Portuguese has a beautiful word for this – saudade.
Photos. Nassim asks me to find a picture of my family on my phone and put it under his camera to be projected on the screen for the audience to see. I wasn’t prepared for that. My heart is crumpling, which is the Farsi way of saying I miss you. I take my phone out of my pocket. The producer asked that I keep it there on flight mode before the audience came in. I unlock it and go to my gallery. A picture of my sisters comes up. They are smiling. Between them is my baby niece who’s quickly growing up to become a beautiful and hilarious toddler. From that point onwards I struggle to keep my voice steady. I struggle not to cry of love. Not to cry of missing my family. Missing my country that was never really mine. Missing my childhood. Missing a home, the feeling of being at home. I work hard to suppress my tears and to keep my voice steady so I can deliver Nassim’s piece. So that this mostly British, mostly White-European audience can experience Nassim’s play. His missing. His saudade.
After the show I chat briefly with Nassim in the dressing room. He’s thinking out-loud about the fact that with his Iranian passport he will never be able to get into Israel. With my Israeli passport I’ll never be able to get into Iran. Even with my British passport I won’t be able to get into Iran just because I have an Israeli passport. War is so, so, so stupid. Words, they can bring us together and they can rip us apart.
Nassim by Nassim Soleimanpour was created with support from Bush Theatre and presented at Traverse Theatre 4–27 August 2017, as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. www.traversetheatre.co.uk
Nassim comes to the Bush Theatre as part of Nassim Plays from 7-16 September.
Nir Paldi is a writer, director, performer and facilitator. He is co-artistic director (with George Mann) of Theatre Ad Infinitum. The company presented two shows at the Pleasance for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2017, Odyssey and Translunar Paradise. www.theatreadinfinitum.co.uk