Nazli Tabatabai-Khatambakhsh and Steven Gaythorpe
Northern Stage, Newcastle
On 19th August 1978, in the southern Iranian city of Abadan, during the screening of a controversial film called Gavaznaha (The Deer), the Cinema Rex was set alight from within. Four hundred people perished. To this day it is one of the largest terrorist atrocities committed against civilians.
The story is told by a cat which had made the cinema its home and which, by its agility, was able to escape when humans could not. It’s a mosaic of fragments of the lives of those who died, of the life of the cat in all its nine lives, of The 1001 Nights, of the Iran of the time: the rule of the Shah and the approaching revolution, of Western influence, of Ayatollah Khomeini, and, in particular, of the life of a little girl, Minou, who was the cat’s special friend and was one of those who died.
The setting is simple: a number of ordinary chairs (not cinema seats), laid out in fragments of rows, face the back wall onto which there is continuous projection. The wall is black so all we see are the faintest of ghost images although there is one strip of lighter gauze-like material hanging stage left onto which occasional images of Minou, in full colour, are projected.
Dressed in a dull green top and trousers, Nazli Tabatabai-Khatambakhsh tells the story. Her voice is quiet and calm, projecting sadness and regret, and her movements match. There are echoes of Middle Eastern dance in her arms and hands (choreography by Nicole Vivien-Watson) which combine with the structure, setting and voice to distance us from what would have been the panic and terror of the event itself.
That’s not to say that the piece is unemotional. Far from it: like both play and performer, the emotions are quiet—regret and sorrow, deep sadness rather than agony—and perhaps for that reason more long-lasting.
When the play finished, the audience sat in almost reverent silence until Tabatabai-Khatambakhsh returned to the stage for the curtain call, and that felt so appropriate.