Backgammon for Beginners
Jacksons Lane, London
This play begins conversationally, and were it not for the dimming of the theatre lights, the audience may have been unaware it had begun at all. Kaveh Rahnama – the only male to appear on stage tonight - carries out towers of disks, placing them apparently randomly across the stage while he converses with Roshi Nasehi and supplants Lauren Hendry from stack to stack. This casual lifting, along with the piles of chalk at each side of the stage floor, hints at the gymnastics to come.
The audience is first addressed directly with a Farsi saying: “Yeki bood, yeki nabood”. A traditional Iranian way of starting a story, the phrase roughly translates to: “There once was someone, there once wasn’t someone.”
The contrary confusion of this statement is characteristic of the deliberately fuzzy narrative of the production. But the barely existent storyline and lack of chronology are rendered unproblematic by the acrobatic and musical talents of the performers. The play is, ostensibly, about an Iranian man with a love of backgammon that leaves his native land in 1976 to begin a new life in London. Beyond this, the lack of verifiable detail highlights the difficulty of preserving spoken stories.
Rahnama is the Iranian man, with slight outfit changes signalling the approximate point in time of the tale. Hendry more confusingly plays every female in the story, from mother, to lover, to daughter – and this is why the acrobatics are so vital.The style of Hendry and Rahnama’s interplay - from scampering and playful when she is the daughter, to close and sensual as she becomes the lover - is the clearest signal of how the plot is progressing.
The gymnastics are genuinely impressive. Seen in such close proximity, the obvious exertion of the two performers provides an element of danger, a slight fear that something could go horribly wrong, which serves to fixate the audience further. Their ability to relay lines during the lifts and tumbles adds an extra layer of wonder.
Roshi Nasehi spends the duration of the production behind a keyboard. Occasionally lending a line to the dialogue, her main role is musical accompaniment. The lingering Persian melodies are full and gorgeous; her voice brings a sense of place and atmosphere that otherwise would have been lacking. Although a couple of scenes slightly outstay their welcome, the multiplicity of the overall performance prevents restlessness in the audience. If you’re a fan of a solid narrative and definite conclusion you may not be impressed, and the loose structure makes it difficult to connect with the characters. However, the physical prowess of the performers cannot help but amaze. Especially when you get home and try a handstand for yourself...
Jacksons Lane, London
Words: Rachael Healy
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