Nassim Soleimanpour, or at least the voice coming from the dictaphone claiming to be him, is going blind. He seems calm about it. His play is an attempt to make the audience experience what he is going through.
“Who’s there? You’re listening to my voice,” he says. His directness, his engagement with the audience turn him into a character, something more than a voice. He points out the absurdity of what we are doing there and questions the medium he is using. There is only a second between two recordings for the audience, but for Soleimanpour it was a whole afternoon. He says he is thinking about us but, to him, we are in the future. He does not know if we will exist.
And we are just relying on what we can hear, rather than what we can see. He builds our trust and our sympathy with his friendly voice and sense of humour. He says that his recordings are all off-the-cuff, unscripted. Who are we to disbelieve him?
The dictaphone, to begin with, is the only sort of actor. A stage manager presses play and stop. Then Soleimanpour gets audience members involved and they become sort-of-actors too. The first volunteer, Kirsty, interacts with the dictaphone, answering its questions and treating it like a real and responsive person. Everyone knows that she is talking to a tiny metal box, that the voice was recorded weeks, maybe months ago. But she can’t not respond because there is an audience there and we expect her to. She has to play along in order to move the play along.
And it is a play, or at least a diary-come-audiobook that wants to be a play. The chosen audience members play a game under Soleimanpour’s instructions. The first person says “I am x”, the second says “but not y” and the third “I can’t z”. The first round yields a satisfying piece of flash fiction, “I am in space but I am not in a spaceship and I can’t breathe.” This is recorded.
At the end (here be spoilers) the recording is played back. So, after they have become actors, the audience members become writers as their voices take the place of Soleimanpour’s. He’s dead, you see. At the end of one of the recordings the stage manager tells us that he died in a car crash 2 months ago. He makes the audience members play one last game, just as Soleimanpour would have wanted. It’s Mafia, where everyone closes their eyes and two people are murderers. It’s a bit less interesting than the rest of the play has been, but it’s Soleimanpour’s last wish so we can’t complain.
Except Soleimanpour is really quite alive. He did an interview for the Guardian the other day. So why make the claim? If he had died, that ending would have been the only possibility, but since he is still alive it seems so abrupt, a bit of a cop-out.
Soleimanpour is playing with us, with the idea of characters and performers. We should not be so naïve to believe what we see and hear on a stage. The idea is worth exploring, but here he uses it as an excuse to present something that seems only half-formed. And there’s barely any Hamlet either.
Blind Hamlet is at Assembly Roxy until 25 August. For more information and tickets, visit the EdFringe website.