"Just let the wind untie my perfumed hair..." or Who is Tahirih?

Thu 4th – Mon 29th August 2016

reviews

Becky Wilson

at 00:23 on 20th Aug 2016

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Who is Tahirih? The Persian Joan of Arc, a Muslim poetess, and the muse of this one-woman show. Written and performed by Delia Olam, this piece consists of several shifting monologues. Each character adopted by Olam has a connection to the woman, and each section is woven together by a hauntingly beautiful, musical rendition of Tahirih’s own poetry. With an evocative set of translucent veils and flickering candles, expectations for the show are high. Unfortunately, ‘Who is Tahirih’ does not quite deliver on its fascinating premise. Minor shortfalls in the script, acting and music accumulate in a greater sense of inauthenticity.

Olam’s physicality is impressively fluid. She shifts with ease between the nervous fidgeting of a servant boy, to the tired gestures of Tahirih’s elderly father. There could, however, be greater variation in her delivery of lines. All characters address the audience with the same wide-eyed intensity; although initially engaging, this grows wearying. Olam’s understated portrayal of the mayor’s wife is the only exception to this. Her quiet admiration for Tahirih is probably the highlight of the show, offering a glimpse of the female perspective and a respite from the loud brashness of Olam’s male characters.

In fact, for a one-woman show about a proto-feminist, ‘Who is Tahirih?’ features woefully few female voices. It seems such a waste that the majority of information we hear about this remarkable woman is filtered through the disapproving male mouthpieces of her cynical executioner and disapproving father. Rather than rewriting silenced Iranian women back into history, this performance seems to favour the patriarchal voices with which we are already far too familiar. Moreover, when Tahirih finally breaks out from beneath her veil at the play’s conclusion, her statements, though poetic, are left unexplored. The show proclaims, in Tahirih’s own words, that “the fetters of the past have burst asunder”, but does not really seem to demonstrate this in any meaningful way.

Olam has composed some beautiful music to accompany Tahirih’s haunting poetry. She is an irrefutably talented musician, and the cello and Appalachian dulcimer compliment her strong singing voice well. However, these instruments are western, as are the jazzy modulations of Olam’s voice. This both detracts from the play’s Iranian setting, and strikes me as a lost opportunity to explore a more authentic Middle-Eastern music.

‘Who is Tahirih?' is neatly performed. But its rich premise is translated into a sadly missed opportunity.

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Caragh Aylett

at 14:58 on 20th Aug 2016

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Every now and then a truly wonderful piece of theatre comes along that makes you stop and reflect. 'Who is Tahirih?' is exactly this piece of theatre. This one-woman performance is the most intricate, elaborate and elegant piece of theatre that I have seen at this year’s Fringe. Delia Olam's ambitious decision to write, compose and perform this piece has created a hauntingly beautiful piece of work that is both captivating and memorable.

'Who is Tahirih'? paints the true tale of Tahirih, a nineteenth century Persian poet and the first feminist suffrage martyr. British men and women are acutely aware of the fight for suffrage - ask us about Emily Davison and we can recite her tragic story. We are equally as aware of the plight of women in the East, which is often presented to us in a way that demands pity. Tahirih’s story weaves these two threads together and eradicates any demand for pity. It shows us, instead, the demand for equality which rippled through Persia, modern day Iran, in the nineteenth century. It re-establishes our view of the position of women in Muslim society and teaches of a strong woman who demanded attention.

The execution of this piece is nothing short of excellent. The stage is set with two white curtains, behind which Tahirih speaks; indeed, as we never meet this character her air of mystery is further established. The piece begins with Tahirih’s singing and cello playing from behind the curtain. Throughout the piece the playing of the cello and Appalachian dulcimer creates a haunting score and the audience are transported into Tahirih’s world.

The woman is presented to us through a series of monologues, given by those who have met her. We learn of her executioner, her father and her messenger. Olam’s ability to swiftly move into these roles is a wonderful reflection of her stunning acting ability. She absorbs the physicality of each of these characters with ease and with minimal costume changes; I am transfixed by each role.

Perhaps the only flaw of this performance is the inability to become fully immersed in Persia. In places, the script uses common Arabic phrases to link back to the role of Islam in the narrative. However, the piece could be enhanced by reciting of Tahirih’s poems in their original Farsi or Arabic, or perhaps the music could be more authentic, for example.

'Who is Tahirih?' is a captivating, beautiful piece of storytelling. Olam’s work is elegant, graceful and though-provoking, and this eloquent narrative will stay with you long after the performance has ended.

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