Saturday, 22 February 2014

Iranian director returns from artistic exile to stage classic tale

With 22 students in tow, husband-and-wife team make journey from Vancouver to a Tehran stage

Stained glass display at Vahdat Hall. Courtesy Guardian.
by Tehran Bureau correspondent, Guardian

“These ... these are the men of Iran ... and they say with a heavy heart: ‘What can we do now? For our bows are broken, our arrows have no place and our hands lie trembling.’ It was exactly as they described. For they had returned from a long war.”

So begins the tale of Aurash, as told by writer and director Bahram Beyzaie. The legend of Aurash the archer is woven into Iranian folklore; among the various texts in which it is mentioned is the Shahnameh, the national epic written more than 1,000 years ago by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. In 20th-century Iran, two men brought the legend back to Iranians’ consciousness: Siavash Kasrayi, with a poem in 1959, and the following year by Beyzaie, then just 21, with a script – more precisely, a barkhani: a story to be read aloud.

Despite his wishes, Beyzaie never got to direct a version of his Aurash barkhani for the Tehran stage, but Ghotbeddin Sadeghi finally did in 1999. Sadeghi, given the smallest space in Tehran’s City Theatre complex, the Chahrsou room in the basement, masterfully brought the sweeping story of war and its aftermath to life.

In Beyzaie’s telling of the story, Iran has been defeated in a long, wearying conflict. Bruised and broken, the country must send an archer to shoot from the highest summit of the Alborz mountains. The spot where his arrow lands will mark Iran’s new border. Aurash is a simple stablehand who, through a series of misadventures, is compelled to take on this great duty. As he makes the gruelling journey to the Alborz, the storyteller declares, “It is your soul that will throw the arrow, and not the power of your arms.” When the time finally arrives, he and the bow become one, disappearing over the horizon. Iran gets back every inch of its land but Aurash is never seen again. The barkhani concludes with the line, “But I know a people that still say Aurash shall return.”

And last week in Tehran, Aurash did return. For the past eight years, some of the brightest lights of Iranian theatre, including Sadeghi, Beyzaie, and Mohammad Rahmanian, have either left or been silent. But their stories are slowly being heard again in this old city of tales.

Rahmanian has been one of the most talked-about theatre directors of post-revolutionary Iran. The relatively tolerant artistic climate during Mohammad Khatami’s presidency, 1997 to 2005, gave theatregoers the chance to see Rahmanian develop from an unknown into one of the country’s most prominent directors.

His Interview, from 2000, is among the greatest productions on the Tehran stage in recent years. As has long been the rule with his shows, it starred his wife, Mahtab Nasirpour; the other lead role was played by Habib Rezaie. Residents of an asylum in Algeria, they are individually interrogated about their revolutionary pasts by a domineering voice that emanates from a loudspeaker. Over the course of the interrogation, details start to emerge: of torture, the burden on their families and how the romantic visions of the revolutionary are crushed.

Due to his association with such politically provocative theatre, Rahmanian was ultimately unable to work during the stifled cultural climate of the Ahmadinejad years. He and Nasirpour moved to Vancouver, where they have taught drama classes in recent years. But earlier this month they were back, presenting a three-day run of Beyzaie’s Aurash at one of Tehran’s top venues, Vahdat Hall.

For the cast, the husband-and-wife team brought along 22 of their students, who had already performed the play in Vancouver. Rahmanian announced that the production had no financial backers and was relying solely on the pre-sale of tickets to meet its transportation-heavy costs. Ticket prices were consequently high – 40–50,000 tomans (£13.50–17 at the market exchange), about double the usual range for Tehran theatre – and the effect was evident in the makeup of the audience, with fewer students and young artists than the norm. Nonetheless, Vahdat Hall was packed.

 Play program, ‘Aurash’. Courtesy Guardian.

The production’s full title, The Ballad of Aurash as Performed by the Inmates of the Half-Ruined Asylum of Freedom with a Look to the Drama Marat/Sade, conveyed its ambition while invoking the 1963 drama by German playwright Peter Weiss, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. While Weiss set his play more than 150 years before its composition, Rhamanian referenced much more recent events in his framing device for the telling of the Aurash legend.

In January 2013, the Azadi (freedom) Psychiatric Hospital was bulldozed while 120 patients were still inside. For months Tehranis had been hearing that the hospital would be torn down to make way for an extension of the Sheykh Fazlollah highway. Talks were under way between the hospital president, Dr Hussein Fowdeh, and local authorities to determine a new site for the facility and make arrangements for the patients to be moved. But suddenly Tehran woke up to the news that municipal bulldozers had started razing the building while scores of patients were still onsite (there were injuries, though none fatal).

As I waited in the vestibule of Vahdat Hall for the doors of the house to open, I saw a huge bouquet signed by Dr. Fowdeh. It read: “In the deathly silence of officials who watched the destruction of the Azadi Psychiatric Hospital, the cry of protest from a devoted artist and lover of humanity comforts us.

“With thanks to Mr. Mohammad Rahmanian, the beloved director of the group, and all the artists who participated in this endeavour.”

In the midst of reading the sign I heard shouts from the entrance. There in front of the doors, a group of actors dressed in long hospital gowns were talking, laughing, screaming.

The play had begun. The patients had been let loose and were running around the hall. Two nurses tried to restore order, futilely. They eventually got up on a stool and announced: “Azadi Asylum will be torn down at midnight. Before we leave, we want to bring you Bahram Beyzaie’s Aurash, a play we have been practicing for weeks.” The audience was then instructed to take their seats in the auditorium.

A half-broken sign on stage greets us: “Welcome to Azadi Asylum.” The patients – trembling, fitful – begin to enunciate Beyzaie’s familiar words. One of the nurses tapped to play Aurash is unable to perform. They wonder what to do. And then Mahtab Nasirpour appears, in a wheelchair. She will be Aurash.

Compared to Sadeghi’s take on the script, this one didn’t quite measure up. The fact that almost all of the actors were students was evident and the performance had an amateurish feel at times. But Nasirpour brought it all together, and at the end, when Rahmanian came onstage, the audience roared. The show might not have been his best, but he was back and that alone filled the crowd with joy and gratitude. The night ended with Rahmanian’s words as he spoke alongside a huge picture of Beyzaie: “And let us not forget our dear artist far away.”

 Via Guardian

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