Iran: Ibsen and Strindberg play out
These striking images from a Tehran production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler caught my eye on the Revolutionary Road Facebook page. Sadly the accompanying statement announced that the play had been shut down by the authorities; the director and cast had been “summoned”, accused of promoting “degeneracy”. Iran’s state television Fars had called Vahid Rahbani’s production […]
29 Jan 11

These striking images from a Tehran production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler caught my eye on the Revolutionary Road Facebook page. Sadly the accompanying statement announced that the play had been shut down by the authorities; the director and cast had been “summoned”, accused of promoting “degeneracy”. Iran’s state television Fars had called Vahid Rahbani’s production a “platform for degeneracy and normalising polyandry, the intermingling of men and women and other worthless proceedings”.

However unreasonable such claims may seem, it’s no surprise that Ibsen’s idealistic heroine doesn’t sit comfortably with the powers set on controlling every outward voice in Iran, however fictional. Fear of impression and influence is paramount.

Later that same week I saw a rather beautiful poster for a August Strindberg play in the heart of Iran and far from the frenzied pace of Tehran. Gleaning as much information as I could from the thumbnail images, I extracted the name of one of the actresses and set out to make contact with her. Strindberg’s The Stronger was opening that Saturday in a small town in a province of Iran in the same week that Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler was banned in the capital.

I arranged an interview with the 28-year-old actress who held the main speaking part in the play.  I was eager to find out how they had staged the production, the significance of the work of a Swedish playwright to her environment and if she was aware of the Hedda Gabler story. Days later I was still waiting, anxious because, even though she’d been enthusiastic, I was aware that she may have had second thoughts about the possible exposure — the consequences of which can’t be taken lightly.

Strindberg’s published short stories were openly anti-establishment and as an atheist, socialist and anarchist, he was tried for blasphemy in Sweden in 1882. Today, more than 130 years and many civilisations on, the people of Iran are tried for blasphemy on a daily basis.

Two weeks later we’re in contact again. She tells me that the owner of the venue where they are performing The Stronger has been threatened and photographic evidence of “activities” has been obtained. The group have dispersed and cancelled performances. She felt compelled to contact me. We begin the interview. The following are her reflections on her involvement in the production and her short-lived performance:

The speed at which they land on you doesn’t allow for articles or interviews before it’s all over. From the first day I always said that [the play] was likely to be cancelled, so I set out to at least enjoy the rehearsals. We hadn’t had a good experience of putting on a production. We’d done some Pinter but there was nowhere to show it. As a student in Tabriz, things weren’t as limited. Here, even non-political playwrights are hot eggs.

We had about two and a half months of rehearsals; with everyone in different jobs, twice a week at first, then more in the last month. We met at an empty house that belonged to a friend’s family. It was freezing. The director would say “the cold is character building”. We kept going with hot drinks and coffees. My role in the play is full of extremes — happy, then depressed. Our plan was to travel with our performance — to take it to Badar Pahlavi, Rasht, Tehran. In the performance our prop was a table. We didn’t care what we’d find, whether we’d have a table or not, we’d improvise, we just wanted to perform. That was our plan. The coherence of it was precarious but we thought we’ll perform for one day, one hour and must be prepared for anything that transpired.

One of the main reasons we chose the café was that there’s nowhere else. There is a public hall that we theoretically could use but it has so many pillars there were blind spots everywhere. I’d heard of a café society in Tehran. Here everything is taboo. There are only two cafés in our town — both relatively new — one is completely glass-fronted and therefore not appropriate. In the café we used, you enter in darkness then go through upstairs. The owner has an artistic background. It worked out well. We thought: let’s overcome our [restricted] situation. It’s not worth our consideration. We thought we could put on a play and at the same time promote a new culture.

People of all ages came, from 17- and 18-year-olds to 60-year-olds. It was exciting. Scenarios arose, like I’d be playing with a cigarette and it would make someone in the audience ask a stranger for a cigarette. The café has WiFi so someone would be sitting with a laptop and before long two or three people would strike up a conversation with them and they’d share online stuff together. There was no control in this situation. The place was packed. What we were presenting became almost irrelevant. We were linking people. It was so busy and there was a sense of disorder. The result is that we had no control over who could be filming. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance contacted saying “we’ve heard that you’re gathering 15, 16 people”. That was too many. In reality there were 50-60 people in a café with capacity for 30. On “stage” I was fully in hijab, it was in character and I had envisaged this happening. But the problem was our audience. We previewed twice for feedback and held five public performances before we were intimidated and shut down.

On Tuesday [the day of the following performance] my friends said “You mustn’t go, don’t expose yourself”. We’ve all dispersed and I haven’t contacted the café since.

We hadn’t put posters up. It was all through Facebook and word of mouth. After the performance people would stay and hang out. They were on a high. The artistic community appeared. One guy who was much older came three times and I said to him  “Tonight I will improvise differently so there’s something new in it for you” but he said no, that he was coming to see the original performance, gaining a new perspective each time he saw it. We had a box. At each performance we said, “This box has many roles…it’s for you to give your comments and it also accepts donations, according to your enjoyment.” We decided to wait until the last performance before opening it, so I don’t know what it holds.

When I was at university, there was a committee that came to oversee productions before any stage performance. There was always a mullah among them controlling what you wore, checking how tight our clothes were. We did Chekhov’s The Proposal, I wore all black — which falls in line with regulations — but they still pulled me up for my leggings. The undercurrent of our work — and I never want to forget this — has always been pressure.

I liked my character [Strindberg’s ‘Miss X’] very much. Maybe it’s pride, or vanity, but I like monologues, so I enjoyed it. I enjoy talking. I probably couldn’t write with the same audacity. My character puts all her effort into expressing herself. In some respects it’s like her last breath, an outpouring of everything, a last chance. The scenario is the character but the speech and deliverance was mine. We changed the ending. I was supposed to exit but a friend said, what are we left with? This is a cut, a slice of life. There is an oral tradition in the work of a Chilean group, it inspired the new ending we composed. When I leave the stage the other character is bereft and shaking. So I return, in a worse state than ever, I offer my cigarette and we share it. We realise that even Bob [the unseen male character] isn’t strong. If we’re weak, he’s not stronger. Ultimately, we’ve shaken the foundations through theatre. It’s a nightmare for the authorities.

Later that same day she contacts me to ask that I remove all names and locations as the situation has escalated and members of the production team have been summoned to answer for their actions. The café owner has been implicated and is still “under enormous pressure”. She still wants this interview to be published.