ED2016 Interviews ED2016 Theatre ED2016 Week2 Edition

Delia Olam: Finding Tahiri

By | Published on Monday 22 August 2016


When we heard about Delia Olam’s show about real life Persian scholar Tahirih, we were totally intrigued, and thought it sounded fascinating – if also incredibly poignant and potentially painful – given the significant history of this woman ahead of her time. It’s a one person piece, which the multi-talented Olam has co-written and stars in, as well as writing original music for it. We found out more about her, and Tahiri.

CM: Can you begin by giving us an idea of what the premise of the play is? Where does the narrative take us?
DO: It is execution night for the play’s central figure of Tahirih, and we meet various people from her present and past, including leaping years before her execution, when she (in)famously removes her veil and appears before her male peers, demanding that they recognise – with this act – that the “fetters of the past are burst asunder” and that an “era of equality” has been set in motion… The character of Tahirih remains almost always behind a gauzy curtain, just beyond reach – as she was made to live her life – and from there she sings her own beautiful poetry, ‘speaking for herself’ between vignettes from the other characters. You should ultimately have her full story, passions, intentions and social influence gradually ‘unveiled’ to you – if you will – by a cast of unreliable narrators who love, revere or despise her variously, as we creep closer to her death – which comes at the dramatic climax of the piece.

CM: The character you play is based on a real person – can you tell us a bit about her?
DO: Tahirih, or Qurra’t-u’l-Ayn as she is also sometimes known, was a Persian woman who was a highly educated scholar – against the norms of the day – and had a voice publicly as a religious teacher, something almost totally unheard of both before and since in that country; she was a famous “poetess” within her own lifetime; famously beautiful – the King wanted her for a wife – and also a fierce champion of the teachings of unity and justice of a new religion that emerged in her lifetime: the Babi Faith – a religious minority that was subject to the most bloody episode of religious persecution in Iran’s history, and who experience ongoing persecution to this day.

CM: What attracted you to the idea of making a play about her?
DO: I am deeply drawn to stories of hope. I am a committed optimist in a world of default irony and cynicism. I found Tahirih’s story to be so wonderfully inspiring and encouraging, because here is a real example of great courage and sacrifice in the face of considerable oppression and injustice, demonstrating to us that it IS possible to effect great change and even a lasting revolution – which is still unfolding – and in a beautiful, eloquent, non-violent yet fiercely principled and unwavering way.

CM: Why did you want to tell her story?
DO: The Babi faith became the Bahai faith and I grew up in a Bahai home. I was very impressed with what I was told about her, but unfortunately she was often accidentally framed as a victim to cruel circumstance – like the “Persian Joan Of Arc” as Sarah Bernhardt once said. I was only really attracted to creating a play about her when I was commissioned for the 100th anniversary of international women’s day and discovered a woman with agency and power who experienced herself as equal. And all before even the first suffragettes meeting was called in the West!

CM: Would you regard this as a feminist piece, given its themes?
DO: Absolutely! It’s about a woman – and her male peers! – starting a revolution of equality; of unity and justice and the eradication of all forms of prejudice.

CM: What made you decide to create a one person show, rather than an ensemble piece?
DO: It was originally written as an ensemble piece! I originally imagined the characters all onstage at all times, but things took a creative turn when I began doing the play readings for test audiences a couple of years ago. For the sake of organisational simplicity, I read all the different parts myself, and the unexpected feedback came back strongly that a woman playing the male parts as well as the female ones in a play with these feminist themes was really serving the text well.

CM: How did you go about the business of putting the show together? Did you do lots of research? Did you sit down and write, or was there more of a ‘devising’ approach…?
DO: There was a sit down with the co-writer, Hera Whinfield, and we workshopped the shape of the piece and the ‘voices’/figures we wanted to explore. Since beginning to offer the work to audiences, it’s been a more ‘devised’ approach.

CM: I notice that there’s live music for the show – is it original?
DO: The music featured in the show – except the one Arabic prayer that I learned elsewhere – is all my original music set to selected translated poems of Tahirih herself; poems which shed light on her thoughts and her ‘voice’, allowing her to give the most effective testimonial for herself throughout the play. I originally tried to write them for guitar, but when I shifted over to cello and Appalachian dulcimer suddenly the flow was there.

CM: You’ve been working on the play for quite a while now – how has it changed as time’s gone on?
DO: It’s become increasingly streamlined and ‘to the point’; and extra layers of meaning have been discovered and applied. Though, perhaps the most noticeable change from last year’s premiere season of the raw work in Adelaide is the development of the production values – the set, the lighting – which had a specific development at the Adelaide Festival Theatre with lighting designer Geoff Cobham.

CM: Do you have plans to develop it any further?
DO: I so love working dynamically and in a constant state of development with the work, and keeping my eyes and ears open to what audiences are getting from what’s being offered. But I’ve been getting a bit of an ‘intervention’ from my team here in Edinburgh, advising me to stop being so mobile with the work; to stand behind what we’ve brought and offer it into the creative conversation with unbending confidence. So, I guess the short answer is: no …for now.

CM: The show must have some pretty sombre moments, given the subject matter – is it difficult to perform because of that? Do you find it emotional?
DO: When ‘the moment’ comes when Tahirih is strangled – for the ‘sin’ of speech – I am in fact playing the executioner and so pouring myself into his presumed power as he overpowers her, which is – and it’s a little horrid to admit – actually quite energising. But then surprisingly, it’s while singing the final poem, after that scene – in a song of such hope, outlining the kind of world free of religious pageantry and indeed hypocrisy of any kind, a world of justice and equality, friendship and the independent search for truth; the world which she believed her life to have been a sacrifice for – that is the moment I often get choked up.

CM: What made you decide to bring the show to the Edinburgh Festival? 
DO: The idea to bring this to Edinburgh first came up after some brutal cuts to arts funding in Australia last year, which caused an entire grants round to be dissolved and, later in the year, caused many even beloved, established theatre companies to lose their funding. Small to medium arts initiatives fared even worse. So, with this work having developed to the point of being tour-ready, nationally and internationally, producer Joanne Hartstone and I started plotting a path for it here in Edinburgh.

CM: How are you enjoying your time in Scotland? Have you managed to do the tourist thing while you have been here?
DO: I am yet to climb Arthur’s Seat or go out to wander on “the moors” or dance a ceilidh – all of which are still on my to do list though! – but I have eaten haggis, albeit in a panini, does that count?

CM: What happens to the show after Edinburgh? Will it be performed elsewhere?
DO: It is my hope that this work will have a life as a performing work for years to come. One of the things I’m here in Edinburgh for is to have that conversation with promoters and producers from other countries and venues.

CM: And what’s next for you? Do you have any new projects planned?
DO: The immediate “next project” is the promoting and touring of my next album ‘Who Is Tahirih?’ which is – as you might have guessed – the songs from this play. Theatrically this Fringe has been super inspiring – I now have bubbling away the beginnings of a sweet, tender and melancholy kids’ show about modern families dealing with living apart, or a piece exploring how to raise fierce little revolutionaries.

‘Just Let the Wind Untie My Perfumed Hair… or Who Is Tahirih?’ was performed at Assembly George Square Studios at Edinburgh Festival 2016.