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Communication Breakdown: Iranian Drama, Western Stage


21 Nov 2010 18:194 Comments
koohestani+play.jpgParisian production of new Koohestani play compels, but is it comprehended?

"Excuse me, but can't the director Westernize his stage work so that we understand it?"

The question was expected. Coming from a graduate student in the Sorbonne Department of Theater Studies, it encapsulated the impact of Western media representations of Iran. For the most part, Iranian society is depicted as a realm of Manichean opposites: bad vs. good, men vs. women, domination vs. submission, fundamentalism vs. liberalism. If a sophisticated Iranian artwork evokes a more complex reality, it obviously requires reconception for a Western audience. Why should Westerners make an effort to understand Iran, when they already know all they need to about its culture?

The student's question concerned Amir Reza Koohestani's latest production -- Where Were You on January 8? -- which was recently performed in Paris at La Colline National Theater. Koohestani is among the most talented of Iran's younger generation of playwrights and directors. His Mehr Theatre Group is the only Iranian company that regularly performs in Europe, South America, Canada, and Japan. Some of its pieces are coproduced or commissioned by European theaters and festivals. But this latest work was an entirely Iranian production. It debuted in December 2009, a few months after the controversial presidential elections, at the Arts Center of Tehran (Khaney-e Honarmandan). It was also presented as part of the 28th Fajr International Theater Festival last February. It then traveled to several important European festivals, including Belgium's Kunstenfestivaldesarts and Austria's Wiener Festwochen.

I had the opportunity to attend the production four times in France: once at the Exit Arts Festival of Créteil, an avant-garde event not far from Paris; another time at the trendy Extra Festival in Annecy, on Lake Geneva; and twice in Paris, at La Colline. It is not my habit to see a play four times. But there was something I was having trouble grasping in this play and it mattered to me that I find my way to its dramatic core. It conveyed no definite, conclusive message. Its unconventional structure was difficult to parse and I felt that the author's conceptual ambitions had led to some weaknesses in the plot. Koohestani incorporates so many seemingly unrelated stories in the production's 80 minutes that the play appears devoid of unity. Still, I wondered if the apparent dramatic chaos -- the consequence of a tangle of different narrations -- was not an illusion. I had the intuition that a single affect was concealed beneath the multiple tragic stories, that a subconscious feeling legitimated the characters' decisions as well as their desperation. After three encounters, however, I still couldn't figure it out.

It was only on my fourth viewing that I was able to see into the play's secret heart, which is ruled by an unutterably deep fear. Each character is manipulated, virtually overwhelmed by a fear of being misjudged, of being arrested, of being questioned, of being dishonored, of being killed -- and all with little or no evident reason. This fear I finally identified reawakened my own -- the one I used to feel in Iran years ago, the one I suppressed when I settled in Europe. This haunting insecurity, this deep terror inheres in Iranians' collective psyche, and I wondered how Western audiences and critics, distant from its psychological and social resonances, could fully understand the play.

Many of the Parisians in attendance at La Colline -- leftist intellectuals, artists, regular theatergoers -- knew Koohestani's works. They had seen his previous productions and were curious to discover his new play. A younger crowd was present as well. If most of them had not previously been exposed to Koohestani's artistic vision, they were looking forward to an Iranian spectacle with veiled actresses speaking an alien tongue. Afterward, everyone seemed confused. Audience members appreciated the play's dark atmosphere but couldn't penetrate into its universe: it was too far from their own, and they experienced a frustrating sense of exclusion. To some extent, they were right -- the play had not been crafted for them but for an Iranian audience with access to an intricate set of codified significations.

The audience's confusion was conveyed in post-performance critiques and in intense Q&A sessions held at both La Colline and the Sorbonne Theater Department. These sessions made me realize how difficult it was for Westerners to understand the play. In addition to the unfamiliarity and complexity of its Iranian context, there was the fact that it was performed entirely in Farsi. Though simultaneous translation was projected above the stage, the actors spoke so fast that it was hard to both read and attend to the performance. Like many of their fellow spectators, some professional critics also failed to understand the play -- their reviews tended to focus on broad, relatively familiar themes such as contemporary Iranian theater, Islamic censorship, and Koohestani's artistic career. The Le Monde critic, for example, put great weight on the fact that Koohestani had to do his military service instead of coming to Paris. The review offered neither explanation nor aesthetic judgment of the actual work the critic had just seen.

Koohestani conceived his play as a documentary about the 2009 presidential elections in Iran. In June 2009, he was finishing his graduate studies at the Drama Department of Manchester University in England and did not attend the election protests. He returned to Iran in September and observed the consequences of the government's repression. Where Were You on January 8? relates stories of traumatized young people, their anger and dismay. Victims of what they regard as an injustice beyond repair, these rebels with a definite cause decide to restore justice in their own way.

It is midnight. Fati, Sogol, Shideh, and Sarah are rehearsing The Maids, by Jean Genet, for Fati's university degree. It is winter, and snow is falling. They are at Sarah's place in Lavasan, a Tehran suburb, and they eventually all decide to spent the night there and leave the next morning. Fati invites her boyfriend Ali, a soldier, to join them for the night. He arrives still wearing his uniform and carrying his gun. When Ali wakes up in the morning, he realizes he is alone. The four women have all taken off and his gun has disappeared.

Under military law, the loss of a soldier's gun is a crime deserving imprisonment. A fearful Ali must find the thief and recover his weapon. The story of the lost gun, which transpires over a single day, is related through phone conversations. The characters almost never meet in person, but call each other constantly. As conversations tumble one upon another, the audience comes to realize that the theft of the gun was part of a collective plan, that Fati purposely asked her boyfriend to join them that cold night of January 8. Each of the young women is grappling with a crucial issue and Ali's potential incarceration is their last concern. Doctor, art student, or painter and actress -- each wants to change her life with the help of the gun, as if they had no option beside violence to bring about change.

To evade censorship, Koohestani employs a realistic language that depicts the current political situation in a codified manner. The style is so ordinary and banal that it becomes metaphorical -- common words refer to weighty concerns, and normally casual idioms allude to specific situations. The characters are almost always in a rush -- driven by fear, they have to act as quickly as possible. Events are rapidly communicated by phone. Since cell phones are monitored in Iran, information is narrated in a fugitive manner, with as little detail as possible. Needless to say, this sort of narrative technique calls on the audience members' complicity and understanding of what all the action is about.

According to their testimonies, the Parisian spectators had a brief insight into the characters' stories but most of them didn't grasp the extent of their meaning. They understood that Sogol, the doctor, absolutely needs to get back a "film" from her ex-boyfriend, but they didn't realize the importance of the matter. In Iran, the word "film" has a specific signification -- Sogol has been secretly filmed by her boyfriend while having sex. When they broke up, he threatened to send it to her relatives and employer. She is thus at risk of dishonor as well as dismissal from her hospital job. This kind of blackmail happens so frequently in Iran that the single word "film" effectively references the entire situation.

Shideh, the art student, has a boyfriend who is in jail. His professor -- a conservative hand-picked by government officials -- sent him down for his rebellious attitude during the presidential election and refuses to validate his final exams. Without a degree, he will have to enlist in the army. Full of anger, Shideh wants to use the gun to confront and scare the professor.

Sarah, the painter and actress, had a dog that was shot by a Guardian of the Revolution before her eyes, simply because dogs are considered impure in Islam. Haunted by the killing, she wants the gun in order to produce an artistic gesture of protest. She intends to shoot a plastic bag full of her own blood on a white canvas. She has an admirer, Abdi, a poor young man who lives near Karaj, a city not far from Tehran. He built his house without a construction permit, and the government has decided to condemn it and take his land for some profitable end. He too wants the gun, to protect his home.

The subtext of the plot, its social impact, was expressed not only through coded words and allusion but by the use of a neutral body language, far from the broadly expressive one seen in many Iranian plays. Spending almost all their time on the phone, the characters barely "act." Their slow, calm attitudes, their "nonpresence" as actors, suggest a society in which strong emotions must be kept constantly in check. We never see them taking revenge. As in a certain severe style of documentary, we get all the information from their endless stream of conversations. Masked words and significant silences progressively unveil the dark reality of their existence.

Even though they were fascinated by the visual aspects of the production and the suspenseful nature of the plot, how much could the Parisian spectators really understand? The mass media oversimplify Iranian reality, obscuring its complexities and contradictions. Should Koohestani have Westernized his play, as the student proposed, so that audiences living in relatively democratic societies could have more easily accessed its meaning?

I fully understand the student's disappointment. Rather than an instantly consumable confection -- a Disneyfied serving of veiled Minnies and bearded Mickeys -- she faced something unfamiliar, unexpected, far from the usual clichés, and she couldn't handle it. Artistic transparence and immediate comprehension were what she had been looking for. She attended the Q&A session in order to better understand what she had experienced, but she clearly would have preferred a production that offered easier entrée to its soul.

Rather than serving as attractive merchandise, or colorful entertainment full of sweet illusions, some art experiences need committed spectators prepared to actively search for truth through codified expressions and hidden meanings. Art in totalitarian countries is neither an entertainment nor a luxury, but an absolute necessity. It helps a community to survive and exercise some freedom. It is vital for Iranian artists to express themselves through the the scrim of censorship and for this, they need a complicit audience, one that is ready and willing to work in concert with them.

I know how strong the relationship between audiences and artists is in Iran. Sadly, that sort of community, that sort of artistic communion, has been lost in the Western theater. To build a bridge over which she could cross and thus enter Koohestani's work would have required this student to "Easternize" her approach. How about extending your horizon, I wondered. How about reading a few articles about Iran online, and imagining something beyond received prejudices? Rather than expecting the director to Westernize his work, why don't we, passive spectators, Easternize our vision a bit so we can understand one another better?

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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I'd really love to see this play. Any chance of a production in DC or NYC?

Sean Robertson / November 21, 2010 9:27 PM

The cosmos is a theater, and we are all actors. There is no East vs. West; it's all an human adventure. Dooodoodoo doodoodo dobedooo dobedooo dood dood dood.

Ekbatana / November 21, 2010 10:20 PM

This is fantastic dramatic criticism. Very well done.

B / November 27, 2010 10:37 PM

I found this review overtly concerned with its perceived declinations between the so called western and eastern tropes. Granted, perhaps a familiarity with some of the cultural sensitivities would illuminate the plot more clearly by providing subtext (societal emphasis on modesty, honour, corrupt bureaucracy and so on). However, the work itself is, and remains to be, primarily a theatrical text as oppose to an Iranian 'narrative' conceived to complement or challenge western held stereotypes. In fact, the experimental traditions that work seems to draw on to reassert itself tend to be of a 'western' artistic origin as oppose to some aestheticised 'eastern' trope.

I dont think anyone who attends theatre expects a ready to consume piece of eye-candy spectacle as the reviewer , rather patronisingly, suggests (given what a niche theatre has become in most European countries, mostly catered towards a specific band of highly educated cultural intelligencia) If the work failed to engage a Parisian audience perhaps there were deeper issues embedded within the text itself that are not captured by simplified division between 'cynical jaded western audience' and 'authentic' vital third world politics.

A / January 7, 2011 2:55 AM