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Iranian puppet theatre: Where humans fear to tread

by Nuala Calvi, The Stage

In a society where people and particularly women are constrained by a code of conduct set out by an oppressive government, puppetry has evolved as an art form because the dolls are free to act out scenarios that are forbidden to people. Nuala Calvi investigates the creative world of Iranian puppetry
 A scene from Yas-e-Tamam's The House of Bernarda Alba

The last few years have seen an explosion of interest in puppetry for adults in the UK, with the monumental success of War Horse and the founding of Suspense, London’s first puppetry festival for grown-ups. But that’s nothing, it turns out, compared to what has been underway in Iran - where increased censorship in theatre has led more and more artists to turn to the art form.

“One of the most noticeable things about Iranian theatre at the moment is the huge outpouring of puppetry,” says Anousheh Adams, a British- Iranian expert on international arts. “It’s a massively popular art form there now, on a scale that I haven’t seen in any other country.”

At the annual Fadjr Theatre Festival in Tehran earlier this year, puppetry shows were everywhere and tickets so sought after that audiences squeezed into the aisles and even on to the edges of stages in order to see the most popular productions. The city also has its own thriving International Puppet Festival that has been going for more than a decade.

This September an Iranian puppet opera was one of the hot tickets at the world’s biggest puppetry event, the Charleville-Mezieres festival in France, and now another Iranian puppet company is one of the highlights of this year’s Suspense programme.

Ever since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran has been reconnecting with its Persian puppetry traditions, which date back hundreds of years to a time when puppetry was an official profession. Artists such as Behrooz Gharibpour began to work with puppetry as a serious art form again, spurning a whole generation of puppet artists. But now, since the ushering in of a more conservative era under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and particularly since violent suppression of opposition protests in 2009, puppetry is being harnessed more than ever as a medium.

“Why? Because a puppet can do and say a lot more than a human can on stage in Iran,” says Adams. “The way human performance is censored in Iran is not the same as the way puppetry is, so it’s become a very popular means of expression.”

She means that as much in terms of the physical things a puppet can legally do, as what it can ‘say’, either literally or metaphorically. In Iran it is illegal for a man and a woman who are not married to touch, which makes things very difficult in terms of casting - unless you find an actor and actress who are husband and wife.

Theatre companies have found their own, inventive ways around the rules, developing a symbolic language that audiences have come to understand. To represent a man holding his wife’s hand, for example, he will hold her scarf up to his cheek. But with puppets, such moments can be portrayed directly, since there is no law prohibiting them from touching.

“Even though actors are representing human experience, and ultimately puppets are too, it is deemed okay for puppets to touch because they are essentially not human,” explains Adams. “We all know puppets can’t really have sex, so that’s not considered provocative.”

Rules around women covering their hair do not apply to puppets - nor are they prohibited from dancing in public, a restriction that has also proved prohibitive for physical theatre companies in Iran. But with strict censorship, and official approval required for every script before it goes into production - not to mention ongoing monitoring throughout rehearsals and runs - many puppet companies are turning to traditional stories and classic plays, both Persian and European.

Shakespeare is hugely popular, as are Chekhov and Ibsen. Not to mention Brecht - “That era of dark social theatre says a lot about their ‘moment’,” says Adams. Iran’s traditional religious Ta’ziyeh plays are being reinterpreted, as are the works of the 13th century Persian poet Rumi. Many of them are being used as a ‘safe’ prism through which to explore themes pertinent to modern-day life in Iran.

Yas-e-Tamam, a leading Iranian puppet theatre troupe, mounted a show based on the Rumi story The Parrot and the Merchant, about an imprisoned bird who feigns death to be free. The company, which is led by female director Zahra Sabri, also got a licence to put on a production of The House of Bernarda Alba in Iran, which is coming to the New Diorama Theatre in London from November 2 for Suspense.

To a westerner, the parallels between Lorca’s play about the suffocating lives of an isolated widow and her daughters, and the image we often get of women in Iran, may seem obvious. But theatre companies have to be extremely careful about how they sell themselves to the press, in a country where a production of Hedda Gabler was suspended in January and the actors and director arrested for promoting hedonism.

Peter Glanville, artistic director of Islington’s Little Angel puppet theatre, and director of Suspense, is more explicit. “I think all the political parallels are there to be read,” he says. “I saw the company perform at the Fadjr Theatre Festival a few years ago and I felt that there was something very powerful about the fact that they were lead by Zahra, in a country where there are different levels of oppression towards women.”

Glanville himself learnt the tricky line directors have to walk in Iran, when he gave a talk about the work of the Little Angel. “I had some photos of our previous production of Venus and Adonis, and I wasn’t allowed to show them because they were perceived as being too erotic,” he recalls.

“You can’t make work in Iran without it being political,” adds Adams. “Making a piece of theatre about any human experience in Iran, which is so defined by the political atmosphere, it’s impossible not to reference the pressures that make that experience what it is.”

• Suspense London Puppetry Festival runs from 28 Oct till 06 Nov 2011 in venues across London. Visit  www.suspensefestival.com

Via The Stage
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