Despite only featuring one character, Listen to Me offers us a kaleidoscopic view of the ways people have reacted to lockdown.
The piece follows Fahad (Taqi Nazeer) delivering a series of varying pieces to camera. Fahad promises that he can lift you out of any lockdown rut you may have fallen into. Looking pristine and stylish himself, Fahad assures you that five minutes with him is all you need, as he instructs you to remove your clothes, exercise, change your diet, and finally take a shower. He appears as a ‘part self-help guru, part boot camp instructor’ according to writer Catherine Grosvenor, who also claims Fahad is someone ‘many of us needed after 5 months of lockdown’.
Except, Fahad’s uber cool, confident persona begins to unravel quickly in his five minute self-help appointment. The pressures of the world begin to sneak into his speech – not just coronavirus, as the recent tragedy in Beirut seems to leave a mark as well. Yet it is thoughts of his family that seem to cause the greatest issue, particularly his brother – a doctor working in the pandemic who still has time to sculpt rock hard abs.
Suddenly, we cut to a very different view of Fahad, lying on the floor, surrounded by tissues and takeaway containers. The kind of person that the self-help version of him would despise. This is a Fahad dreading an upcoming family reunion, a Fahad who’s a struggling actor, work obliterated by the coronavirus and unable to compare to his life-saving brother. It’s a familiar image of the creative made fragile, forced to question the validity of their career. This is a situation that may appear uncomfortably recognisable to many of us in the wake of lockdown, and speaks to the precarious place that the arts have been left in. Fahad’s pain is achingly real when he confronts his own career of ‘pretending’.
But this pretending offers a glimpse of hope for Fahad, as we are transported once more. This time we see Fahad in his bathroom, preparing for his family re-union, buttoning a shirt and twirling his moustache, ready to tell his family about the spiritual awakening he’s undergone in lockdown. In other words, lying through his teeth. In other words again, finding a way to cope.
It’s a very neatly achieved three-act-structure in under ten minutes. Credit should go to the direction of Shilpa T-Hyland for establishing three unique environments within the confines of one flat.
The first two acts feel a little stronger than the denouement, as Fahad’s pretending seems brittle. It would have been more affecting, perhaps, if he’d found something more concrete to latch on to. Then again, who doesn’t recognise the idea of faking it ‘til you make it? Of projecting confidence that isn’t necessarily there? But Grosvenor is clearly a writer who understands that our productivity and achievements within lockdown are not the be all, end all. That our worth is not necessarily measurable. Fahad’s insistence on pretending means it is not clear he has learnt this yet.
For the most part this is a short that lives and dies on the strength of its one performance – and Nazeer does a wonderful job. The hard-nosed initial version melts away organically into a far more vulnerable and empathetic character. As you watch the final scene, where Fahad steps out into the street, taking a deep breath and ready to meet his family, you can’t help but cheer for him.
Listen to Me is streaming on the National Theatre of Scotland’swebsite.