Hannah Kershaw reviews Mahan Nikbakhsh's sold-out theatre debut.
Having read Mermaids’ brief description of Lost in Translation as “an absurdist piece of theatre about cultural and intellectual disconnection”, I anticipated a play that was obsessed with its own intellect, too long, or in a race to include every possible convention of theatre in a nightmarish student-theatre edition bingo. Trust me, I’ve been there.
I was completely unprepared for an extraordinary 55 minutes of original writing. Lost in Translation is Mahan Nikbakhsh’s self-professed “first proper play” that takes place in the liminal space of a coma, weaving through the deeply personal experiences of a young Iranian poet in Britain. Jack Detwiler plays the leading, unnamed character “A”, who suppresses his Iranian heritage and is forced to navigate the feelings of guilt and self-doubt that this action brings. He literally cannot escape his thoughts because of the embodied manifestation of his subconscious, played by Emily Speed.
This is character “B”, that voice we all have inside our heads – the shadow voice that always seems to be doubting you. Character “C” (see what’s going on here?) is a sultry ex-lover. Or rather, because it’s a coma, it is the memory of a failed relationship, played by Amelia Stokeld.
Detwiler gets the archetypal pretentious poet spot on: arrogant, insufferable, and incapable of sustaining a lasting relationship. Memories of his last relationship with “C” prove this. He can’t listen. His subconscious holds him accountable, and there’s a perverted satisfaction in watching the suffering that his inner voice brings. The macho demeanour is a façade, and Detwiler becomes less Miles Teller in that Esquire interview and more sympathetic and misunderstood man.
Ambitious sex jokes don’t precipitate laughter, they’re just another evasion tactic to be someone he’s not. It leaves you unsettled, although this probably had something to do with sitting beside Reverend Dr MacEwan, the University Chaplain in the intimate Barron Theatre space.
Mahan Nikbakhsh skilfully manoeuvres from the bleak and vulgar expectations of western masculinity to the comedic and touching, as we feel the pangs of disappointment when opportunities for this Iranian poet seem to be limited to mere translation work.
The star of the show is undeniably the dialogue. Witty exchanges between A, B, and C show off Mahan’s tight writing, where everything is clever. Purposeful but not pretentious. We root for his ex-girlfriend (Stokeld), but we also root for “A” (Detwiler). Eventually, we find out that she takes a bit of his translated work, a piece of his Iranian-ness, to use in her poem, without crediting him.
The allegory of a pomegranate would make the English literature student swoon. It combines the symbol of Iran with the Greek myth of Hades and Persephone.
The play ends with the poet accepting a phone call from his father. The audio booms over the audience – it’s Nikbakhsh himself, speaking Farsi, and a clear indication of the poet finally accepting his Iranian heritage.
This seems to raise a tension. “A” accepts his identity. It’s been his subconscious that has been attacking and doubting him all along. Does this mean that it was all inside his head? If so, isn’t that an uncomfortable conclusion? We know that the outside world was the reason for his crisis. His Iranian identity was commodified by his ex-girlfriend – yet the play’s conclusion suggests that peace comes with a rather complacent acceptance of self. Isn’t it society that should change?
This play hits anyone who has ever felt that they do not quite fit into the world. It’s universal and rings true beyond the diasporic experience.
Nikbakhsh tells me that he wants more people to write and think about diaspora. That’s why he has started an outreach program running talks and workshops, although it's been badly affected by strikes. He’s particularly excited about Laura Walker’s play Braided, taking place in March.
Once in a blue moon does the quality of an event at St Andrews exceed its price. This was the best hour that £5 has ever bought me.
Lost in Translation will run for two weeks at Edinburgh Fringe.
Photo: Hannah Kershaw