Kaveh Rahnama has been rifling through binbags. The kind of binbags that clog up attics and slump on top of wardrobes, and sit all night outside charity shop doors. Rooting through his own dusty treasure chests, he’s come across unsent letters he wrote as a teenager – most of which, he tells me, are about words.
One asks, “Do you ever feel like you’ve been talking for a whole week but you haven’t actually said anything?” He brushes it off as teenage angst, but the question seems to resurface throughout our conversation. The anxiety of communication we feel when we’re young; the cliché of the ‘misunderstood’, isn’t something that’s easily left behind.
If art is one of the ways adults explore the preoccupations we play out as children and sulk about as adolescents, it’s perhaps no surprise that the show Rahnama, along with Lauren Hendry, is bringing back to Jackson’s Lane Theatre, is haunted by the same ageless frustration. The paralysis of self-expression permeates Backgammon for Beginners’ conflicted truths and confused articulations of identity.
The piece pivots on an elusive central figure, Roshan, who is modeled on Rahnama’s father. This character morphs constantly throughout the stories we’re told about him, slipping away from any sense of concrete identity. In fact, the production’s recurrent refrain is the Farsi equivalent of ‘Once upon a time,’ which translates as ‘Once there was someone; once there was no one at all.’
As a company who straddle the contested boundaries between disciplines, So & So Circus Theatre have an unusual perspective on what can be said with words. “People couldn’t understand why we wanted to make a show about this subject matter with circus; or secondly how. They just didn’t get it. But you use whatever tools you feel are necessary to tell that story.” They insist that text and acrobatics must go hand in hand: “Words can help guide your audience, but their brain joins up the dots with acrobatics. The acrobatics touch the bits that you can’t say with words.’”
Thanks to this hybridity, certain moments in the piece seem to perfectly strike that strange power of theatre to combine different planes of reality in a way that expresses meaning so absolutely. At one point Hendry, standing unsupported on Rahnama’s shoulders, shifts her weight so that he must swerve and duck to keep her from falling. Hendry describes how the moment was inspired by Rahnama’s grandmother, who at twelve married a man ten years her senior. “She was always in control, even though she was a child when they got married”.
Choreographing a gesture in which, unusually for acrobatics, the female Flyer rather than the male Base leads the interplay of weight and balance, created a way to access the same delicate equilibrium which anchored that marriage; to physically bring the relationship back to life. For Hendry, this choreography is a “perfect example of why you would use circus. Because you can’t get that sense of weight without it”.
Whilst it is moments such as this that seem to encapsulate the harmony of circus and theatre, they also provide reveal the dichotomy of the disciplines. A brilliant actor is often one who convinces us of something imaginary; who inhabits a fiction absolutely. The thrill of acrobatics, however, lies in moments in which fiction is swept away to reveal the fiber of real danger; moments that remind us of the genuine and necessary trust between the performers, and of the real fallibility of the human body.
So & So are unusual in that it is the story, not the circus, that leads the devising process. Hendry is wary of companies who use complex new equipment for each production, since it risks limiting the depth of the work: “The story you can tell is the story that is instantly offered up by that apparatus”. Working only with acrobatics however, ideas and characters develop a complexity of their own, and the performers continually develop their tools. “You build on your vocabulary the way you build on language – it’s an acrobatic language”.