Caligula in Tehran
by ARTS CORRESPONDENT in Tehran
05 Nov 2010 20:59
[ theater ] In defiance of all expectation, Tehran theater thrives. Small houses as well as the official Shahr Theater are drawing audiences with plays ranging from the mainstream to the wildly avant-garde. Daring directors stage plays outside of traditional venues in order to present stories that would otherwise be banned by government censors. Young people keep this underground scene going via word of mouth. Clandestine parties meet in the desert, on a mountainside, in a parking lot to attend experimental performances that often involve spectators as part of the event.
And from time to time, one of these radical productions comes out in the open.
Last summer, the Tehran theater season was highlighted by a staging of Caligula, written by Albert Camus. Caligula in Tehran? It seemed impossible -- in parts perfectly parallel to the country's current political situation to be permitted. I was curious to see how 28-year-old director Homayoon Ghanizadeh had interpreted the plot while steering clear of the censors.
The young Caligula is notorious, both as one of ancient Rome's most dictatorial emperors and, even more infamously, as a mad sadist. He considered himself a god -- styling himself "Optimus Maximus," he claimed no less importance than Jupiter, most powerful diety of the Roman pantheon. Proclaimed emperor at the age of 25, he was soon revealed as a despot, ordering torture and executions for his personal pleasure. He had not only his closest courtiers and a good portion of the Senate killed, he condemned to death even his own father, Germanicus. Fired by an incestuous lust for his sister, Drusilla, he regularly succumbed to tempestuous breakdowns.
Camus, the great 20th-century French novelist, essayist, and dramatist, spent 13 years writing Caligula. Fascinated by the emperor's ardor for his sister, Camus begins the narrative with her death. In his version, the tragic Caligula, refusing to accept her sudden parting, becomes a rebel against life itself. Spiraling into madness and delusion, he behaves like a desperate monster, butchering his own people. Since he cannot find happiness, he must ensure that it is denied to all others.
Since its genesis, the play has had significant political resonances. Set within the imperial palace, it depicts the Roman Empire as a totalitarian state. Finished in 1941, amid World War II, it was a vehicle for Camus's denunciation of the absolute power of dictators like Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini.
As I arrived at the theater some 20 minutes before the performance, the sight of a kitchen onstage grabbed my attention. Four or five bakers busied themselves preparing bread dough. This pantomime was entirely Ghanizadeh's invention, a prelude in which the director foreshadowed his take on Camus's Caligula: The bakery apprentices, wearing white pajamas and aprons, were apparently the same men who would serve as senators in the play proper. These patrician characters moved like marionettes. When they eventually spoke, they did so in the manner stereotypical of men in traditional Iranian baths -- very loud and nasal. They worked systematically, mixing ingredients, passing them from hand to hand until they reached a large machine located at the front of the stage. The preparation of the dough required some considerable time, and the head baker regularly announced the percentage of the task accomplished: 25 percent, 50 percent, 75 percent, 95, 96, 98 percent. Finally, people started laughing -- no one could ignore the allusion to the enrichment of uranium, and the controversy surrounding Iran's nuclear program.
I noticed the particular elegance of the young spectators appearance, who were dressed in original, artistic styles rather than the trendiest fashions. They didn't belong to the nouveau riche -- or "new purses," as they are known in Iran: that socioeconomic class is typified by mobsters and institutional thieves, relatively uneducated and uniformly close to the regime. What I was encountering was another side of society, the emerging middle class, represented by educated students, many of whose families come from the provinces. Most are film, drama, and arts students and their engagement with Tehran's underground theater scene is a passionate one. I experienced a sudden upwelling of hope -- I deeply believe that the future of Iran belongs neither to the diaspora nor to the nouveau riche, but to the youth who share a novel, still developing blend of traditional and modern values, who have the capacity to preserve the unity of Iranian society by respecting certain aspects of its religious culture while moving beyond its confines.
Striking in this Iranian Caligula was the largely comic approach to physical action. The direction of the actors' movement communicated in an immediate, powerful way. The senators-cum-bakery-apprentices were presented as virtual puppets -- cowards and conformists unable to combat Caligula's cruelty, concerned only with their own comfort and security. Their avidity was exemplified in a scene of the second act, in which they gorge themselves on spaghetti and then vomit everything back up. As the dinner proceeded, the metallic sound of their forks beating on their plates, the clanking of their teeth aggressively masticating pasta, and their grunting, provoked by some intense intestinal pleasure, grew into a horrific fin. The grotesque behavior demonstrated how oppression had reduced them to an infantile state (reaffirmed by their pajamas), for any hint of maturity and individual volition would threaten the illusory power of their despotic leader.
Camus offers not only a critical portrait of a sanguinary dictator, he depicts the entire system as corrupt, its fearful members accepting the emperor's absolutism. As interpreted by the talented Saber Abr, Caligula's flexible body language provided an interesting contrast to the quasi-robotic movements of his subordinates in the regime. His sensuality, his desire to reach the moon, and his existential angst are expressed through a feminine suppleness. An epic tyrant, Caligula is also a psyche in torment, deeply aware that God cannot possibly exist in such a cruel world. Surrounded by ignorant, self-absorbed hacks, in spiritual solitude he tries to deal with the absurdity of existence. But rather than accepting reality and searching for some sort of meaning, he falls into a nihilistic rampage, destroying everything, down to his very soul.
If these two performance styles, close to burlesque, amplified the play's comic elements, there was also a tragic dimension, which manifested quite differently. Particularly captivating were the several scenes played without dialogue. Interpolated amid Camus's text, they mostly concerned torture or death. Among the additions was an entirely new character, performed in remarkable, understated fashion by Saeid Changizian, one of Amir Reza Koohestani's favorite actors. This additional character, nameless, is present on stage throughout. His functions are multiple: Witness to every cruel, mad act, he also perpetrates several, as Caligula's executioner and undertaker. Each time he is called upon to perform his duties, he puts a vinyl record on an old gramophone. Music heralds the start of a painful scene. Violent action set to a melancholic Western rock ballad creates an emotionally fraught intimacy.
One of the longest dialogueless scenes concerns the fatal poisoning of a senator, Mereia, and the lavation of his corpse. Surrounded by voiceless senators horrified by Caligula's crime, the nameless figure places the poisoned man on the dining table and grasps his arms as he suffers his death throes. Once death arrives, the undertaker commences his job systematically, meticulously: He removes the victim's clothes and throws them in a plastic bag -- complete nudity is not allowed on the Iranian stage, so the senator is left with his baking apron. The undertaker begins to wash him. He cleans his feet, his hands, and concludes by swaddling the body with large bands of white tissue.
During this extraordinarily long and terrible scene, I glanced at the transfixed spectators. All eyes were riveted to the stage as if spellbound. Living in Europe, I attended many theatrical productions that depicted violence and death. But I had never witnessed an audience so petrified. It took me some time to understand. Rather than European bourgeoisie sitting comfortably in red velvet chairs and enjoying a drama at a safe emotional distance, here was a very different audience and a very different type of experience, with desperate people engaged in a profound relationship with the action on stage. They needed these characters in the archaic sense, like an ancient ritual that would help to release them from oppressive memories and dread imaginings -- one can even find analogies with ta'azieh, Iran's classical genre of religious theater.
The most relevant contemporary Iranian theater elicits another, related type of relationship between spectator and performance -- it awakens the survival instinct of the soul itself, the refusal to ever fully surrender to the regime's repressive ideology. The violence of the Iran-Iraq War, the cult of martyrdom, the curtailment of free expression, the severe restrictions imposed on women -- especially on intimate sexual relationships -- have all deeply marked the Iranian psyche, prompting dark visions and a fascination with carnal sensation. Through unforgettably dramatic situations, explosions of emotion, spectacular scenes of violence -- the staged body language as perfect metaphor for the violence enacted on real-life soul and flesh -- the theater can wield a cathartic power, exorcising the audience's nightmares, which hardly cease at daybreak. Such an artistic experience can provide a rare sensation of freedom. It might be an illusion, it might last no more than a moment, but it is nevertheless invaluable.
Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau