Produced by Zendeh and written by Steven Gaythorpe, Cinema recalls the story of an act of terror that sparked a revolution in Iran on 19th August 1978 from the point of view of Shahrzad, feral cat and teller of tales. Sophie Partridge reviews a performance at the Arcola, London on 30 May.
On the recommendation of director Simon Startin I saw the integrated BSL interpreted performance of Cinema at The Arcola - a theatre I like; it’s accessible (I can have a comfy wee), the bar is framed with prints from previous shows going back decades and the staff are friendly. I was not disappointed!
Cinema is usually a one woman show. However, performer Nazli Tabatabai-Khatambakhsh worked so well with interpreter Nicole Vivien Watson, that it felt more like a 2-hander. Nazli dressed in black with a string of black pearls, plays Shahrzad, a cat who has made her home in the real, doomed Cinema Rex in Tehran. Nicole as Nazli’s signing shadow – perhaps even death herself – mirrors, dressed all in white with another matching string of pearls.
Glad to say there were no fake whiskers or fur, with exaggerated animal mime. There was however, a very pleasing moment of cat scratching and I’m not a cat person! Instead Nazli as Shahrzad, just as another legendary Arabian female story-teller, endeavours to vocally tell the tale of her cinema family and stave off the end of her last feline Life, in order that the lives of ‘Paris, Baga, Peshawar, Aleppo, New York, London, Abadan’ and all the 422 who are killed in the arson attack in Tehran, are not forgotten. And she is thinking especially of the owner’s daughter, a little girl who we see an image of projected on the cloth strip, which serves as a screen, torn and singed at one edge.
The use of BSL in the telling of the story was an echo that enhanced the narrative. At times both performers shared the storytelling, such as the scene where Shahrzad near-escapes drowning in a sack as a kitten, only to be confronted by an equally deadly scorpion; the Scorpion being `played’ by Nicole.
In the after-show discussion chaired by Hassan Mahamdallie, writer Steven Gaythorpe spoke of how within the work of the company ZENDEH, interpretation is always placed at the heart of any piece with the signer actively engaged in the performance on stage, rather than being stuck on the side like an after-thought.
It was a shame that Nazli wasn’t present during the discussion, as I would have liked to know how that process was for her. Having worked extensively with Graeae Theatre Co. over the years, this use of BSL is perhaps something I take for granted but for the audience on Friday night it was clearly a new experience and one they appreciated. Indeed it was hard to imagine the piece without the layer of BSL interpretation.
Cinema is a beautifully lyrical piece, true to Shahrzad’s aim of telling the cinema-goer’s stories on that day and unfortunately, too resonant with today and the nameless, anonymous numbers of murdered individuals that are glimpsed every night on the news.
ZENDEH tell award-winning, unforgettable stories. CINEMA previewed at Arcola Theatre, London and The Tron, Glasgow in May 2015 before going to The Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August and then onto a full national tour in October.