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Theater: HamletIRAN

by STEPHEN KINZER

10 Apr 2011 18:28Comments

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Possibly the first production of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" to be set in modern Iran.

[ review ] In one of the first scenes in Shakespeare's Hamlet, the troubled prince recalls his noble father by saying simply, "He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again." Soon afterward, the dead king's ghost appears, a symbol of the majesty that has been lost in a nation now ruled by intrigue, corruption, and violence.

Few scenes in the history of drama have been acted as often as this one. In a production recently staged at Siena College, however, the ghost is not portrayed as a medieval Dane, but as the late Iranian leader Mohammad Mosaddegh. Later in the play, when Hamlet is cursing his mother for marrying an immoral tyrant, an image of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad flashes on a giant video screen.

Like other Shakespeare plays, Hamlet can be set in any time or place. This production, called HamletIRAN, may be the first to place it in modern Iran. Characters sing Persian folk songs, courtiers wear turbans, and an image of Mount Damavand crowns the closing scene. The stage is centered around a pool like those around which traditional Persian gardens were built.

The tormented hero is portrayed as representing the Green Movement that emerged to protest the apparent vote fraud with which Ahmadinejad was reelected in 2009. He sees that "something is rotten" in his country and wants "to set it right." Yet he shrinks from violence. He loves his country despite recognizing the corruption of its leaders. It is up to him to bring about change, but he fears that if he acts rashly, the country will fall into chaos and become an easy target for foreign enemies.

Other characters are also shaped as reflecting aspects of today's Iran. Polonius, chief adviser to the new king, is usually portrayed as either a comic bumbler or a crafty manipulator. In this production he is a mullah willing to say whatever will keep him in favor. This gives a new meaning to the scene in which he agrees with Hamlet that a cloud passing overhead resembles a camel, then agrees that it resembles a whale, and finally a weasel. Keeping himself in favor matters more than honesty.

Most jarring is what happens after the tragic death of Hamlet's beloved Ophelia, who drowns after being driven mad by the violence that surrounds her. At the moment her death is announced, the stage erupts with images of Neda Agha Soltan, the young protester who was shot dead during a Green Movement protest in Tehran. Both women symbolize the death of innocence, and embody the tragic fate of those who find themselves victimized by forces they cannot control or even influence.

Ophelia "represents the Iranian exiles who left Iran in 2009-10," explained the director of this remarkable production, Mahmood Karimi-Hakak. "Upon her death, Ophelia walks into the water, leaving her shawl in it as the lasting effect of her innocent death on the country and beyond. She is drowned in the waterway connecting the Caspian to the Gulf. The future of Iran may be drowned within the country, but its action to rise against dictators is now spread throughout the world."

Karimi-Hakak is an Iranian American who has devoted his life to theater. In Iran he is famous, or infamous, for a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream that he staged in Tehran in 1999. The opening performances were packed, but before the first week of the run was finished, thugs stormed the stage. The show was closed, and Karimi-Hakak was charged with one of the world's more bizarre-sounding crimes: raping the public's innocence. It was the era of the terrifying "chain killings" of intellectuals in Tehran, and after receiving vivid threats, Karimi-Hakak fled his homeland.

He had been educated in the United States and taught theater in Maryland, and found a new home at Siena College, near Albany, New York. There is no theater program at Siena. "All of my actors are biology majors or business majors," he said with a smile before a recent performance.

One of his innovations is to cast women in most of the roles, including that of the conflicted hero. "This is to signify the important and ever-growing role of Iranian women in the struggle against the regime, and for justice and freedom for all Iranians," he explained.

HamletIRAN will have its final performances this weekend. After one of last week's shows, the young actors and a handful of other students heard the reaction of an insightful critic of the Tehran regime, Mansour Farhang, who was the Islamic Republic's first ambassador to the United Nations and quit to protest its leaders' refusal to release American hostages seized in the U.S. Embassy takeover. He congratulated the actors for their "magnificent" work, and told them that Shakespeare intended this play to be "about legitimacy, about what happens when leaders lose their moral right to rule."

The play, which is the longest in the Shakespeare canon, has been compressed to two hours. Set against the background of contemporary Iran, its lines take on new meaning. Hamlet might well be talking about political change in Iran when he says: "If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all."

Stephen Kinzer is an award-winning foreign correspondent and the author of "All the Shah's Men" and "Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America's Future." Photos via Flickr.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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