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The BBC’s Radio Four has been running a series recently called Uncovering Iran. In a sense, this theatre production could be seen as a complement to it. Mehrdad Seyf’s play looks back 100 years to events surrounding the establishment of the first secular parliament in Iran. Seen from today’s perspective, what is interesting is that many of the arguments seem to echo those so intensely debated at the moment, particularly those concerning the relationship between Islamic and secular law. And Seyf and the cast of 30 Bird Productions emphasise the contemporary resonance by presenting events in a surreal, comic style.
The trouble with the show, though, is that this very playfulness tends to obscure exactly what is happening. For anyone not up to speed on Iranian history and which shah ruled when, the piece is invention-heavy and fact-light, which makes it confusing. It tumbles about in time, place and perspective and you emerge still not entirely clear about the sequence of events, which makes it hard to appreciate the games being played and the points being made.
Leslie Travers’ abstract design looks like a playground, dominated by a ladder and a white, triangular climbing-frame that spins round and that can be climbed over, clung on to and scurried through. The versatile performers, clad in blue suits, clamber around these structures, taking it in turns to play successive shahs, various flunkies, revolutionaries, religious leaders, local populace and American missionaries. To some extent the shah becomes an emblem of power, brought back to twitching life by a crew of anxious doctors every time he looks set to expire. Meanwhile, democratic government edges closer.
It is an inventive piece. The performers are very funny as they scatter in lightning time out of the way of the violent wrath of Mohammed Ali Shah Qajar as he strides around looking for heads to bang and groins to knee. And there is a delicious irony, of course, to an American missionary’s statement that America doesn’t interfere in other countries’ affairs. But the playfulness is at the expense of clarity. For those well-versed in the facts, this may be an illuminating evening. Those keen to learn more, like myself, might have preferred something more pedestrian and informative about such a fascinating subject. ★★☆☆☆
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