The show’s narrative is gripping, gracing us with the intimate and banal details of the lives of the Cinema Rex’s audiences

It has been said that we all tell stories simply to stave off Death. For the storyteller Scheherazade, of One Thousand and One Nights, Death literally awaits the conclusion of a tale.

In Cinema, from theatre company ZENDEH, the multitudinous stories of the ordinary people of Abadan, Iran, become our tales. Portrayed with touching naivety by company artistic director Nazli Tabatabai-Khatambakhsh, this piece is told from the perspective of another Scheherazade, a cat...though this may be a human dreaming that she’s a cat, or a cat dreaming that she’s a human.

Scheherazade is the innocent interlocutor to life in Abadan with the ash, bones and ruins following the Cinema Rex fire pinning the threads of the narrative together. This one-woman show is rich with ideas about memory, life, death, sex, and observation but, sadly, the weight of the subject matter is not matched by an equally powerful delivery.

Cinema is audibly and visually extremely spartan, presumably signifying the auditorium in which we, the audience, are the ghosts of the fire’s victims. Supported by nothing more than a spattering of plastic chairs on stage and sepia video footage projected on the charred remains of a cinema screen, so much of this piece rests on the performance. Aside from snippets of music and the hauntingly innocent home video clips that cascade across the projection screen, we have only Tabatabai’s performance as Scheherazade the cat to hold our attention.

The show’s narrative is gripping, gracing us with the intimate and banal details of the lives of the Cinema Rex’s audiences, as perceived by the cat, and the cat’s own story as well. Scheherazade, whether truly feline or sapien, is as frank and honest as any creature could ever be. Predictably, she seems to have been stalked by death and tragedy all of her nine lives.

Here’s the play’s major problem: Tabatabai’s performance never quite reconciles naivety with the burdens of experience - the idea of being innocent yet plagued by the knowledge of humanity’s capacity for cruelty to both its own kind and to the lives it considers insignificant. There’s something electric behind the idea of Cinema but Tabatabai’s Scheherazade unfortunately falls short of the requisite nuances needed for the part. Instead of drawing us in, co-opting us, it feels like Scheherazade is pleading with us to feel her pain, imploring us to see the suffering of innocents, so the emotions feel forced.

Dense with ideas and emotion, Cinema’s narrative is the element that keeps the audience truly engaged with this interesting and touching tale. However, the performance does eat into the basic requirements of the narrative. In another incarnation, it could be stellar.

Reviews by Josh Adcock

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The Blurb

August 1978. Cinema Rex fire, Abadan, Iran. Four-hundred and twenty-two dead. The year of Superman, Saturday Night Fever, and an act of terror that sparked a revolution. Who will remember the dead? Shahrzad – feral cat, teller of tales – pleads with Death for one more life. To have another saucer of milk. To tell the stories of the dead. Paris, Baga, Peshawar, Aleppo, New York, London, Utoya, Abadan... What matters now is that the names are not forgotten. ZENDEH creates award-winning, unforgettable theatre that connects the personal with the political. @ZENDEH_tweets #Cinemacat