Written and performed by Nazli Tabatabai-Khatambakhsh
Northern Stage, Newcastle
Paper Dolls is a performance installation, commissioned by Northern Stage as part if its 40th birthday celebrations and part of Northern Stages, "a global conversation about northernness". After assembling outside the downstairs door to Stage 2, the audience is slowly led in an ever-decreasing square, along paths created by hundreds of hanging paper dolls, as a soundtrack of almost audible voices plays, until finally we sit in a small square (there are only 17 able to see the show at one time), in the centre of which stands writer/performer Nazli Tabatabai-Khatambakhsh, holding a strip of four of the paper dolls. We have seen her as we walk, occasionally speaking and singing
We are given a folded piece of paper with a doll template and a pair of scissors. "Please cut carefully," we are told. And as we do, Tabatabai-Khatambakhsh starts to talk, to tell us the story of the women of her family in Iran: great-grandmother, grandmother, mother and, finally, herself and their migration from a provincial Iranian town to Tehran, then to Paris, to Edinburgh and finally Newcastle. A quiet, almost sublimninal, soundtrack plays and occasionally photographs are projected onto the floor in front of us.
The sections are separated from each other by north eastern women's voices telling us fragments of their stories. These are members of the Northern Stage Performance Group who helped create the piece.
When she reaches herself, we are led back through the paper doll "corridors" into the tiny foyer whence we make our way up the starrs to the bar and out into the slightly chilly Newcastle night.
It's a strangely dreamlike, even mesmerising experience. The (one might almost call it) procession round and round the room through the dolls, sometimes as much as seven rows high, through variations of light and shade with the brightly lit square of white seats where the performer stands always in sight, creates a somewhat ritualistic feeling, intensified by the almost subliminal sounds and the total silnce of the audience members, so different from the usual pre-show buzz of chatter in more conventional theatrical presentations.
And it is intensely intimate: the performer, with her quiet voice occasionally tinged with amusement, is so close to each memebr of the audience that any one of us could have reached out and touched her without leaving our seats. But this intimacy is not uncomfortable or even threatening as it can be in some theatrical situations, for indeed this does not have a theatrical feeling at all. Rather we seem to be sitting and listening to a friend.
These 45 minutes conjure up a flow of images and ideas which lead us to considering our own stories. A fascinating piece!
Reviewer: Peter Lathan