Tehran, Jan. 22 (Reuters): Groundbreaking British actors trod the boards in Iran last night after more than a quarter century absence with a Shakespeare play that tested the sensitivities of the Islamic republic’s authorities.
With a last-minute dash to find long-johns to cover actors’ bare legs, the Dundee Repertory Theatre Company’s production of The Winter’s Tale marked the first major British cultural event in Iran since the Islamic revolution of 1979.
A tragi-comedy dealing with themes of adultery, jealousy, murder and male fallibility, the play had to be adapted to avoid offending religious hardliners.
“I took out as many extraneous moments of physical contact between the sexes as possible,” director Dominic Hill said after the curtain went down to a standing ovation at Tehran’s Vahdat theatre.
Cultural events in Iran have received a boost since moderate President Mohammad Khatami came to power in 1997 seeking to boost democracy and improve social freedoms. But theatre-goers have on occasion been attacked by vigilantes outraged by un-Islamic behaviour on stage.
In Iran, touching in public between unrelated men and women is taboo. So Hill decided the opening dance should be replaced with a banquet and in a later scene, men and women danced without touching. But despite the restrictions, he insisted on keeping some key moments of physical contact.
“It’s a play that hinges on one moment when a man sees his best friend and his wife, in his words ‘paddling palms and pinching fingers’,” he said.
The touching that stokes King Leontes of Sicilia’s jealousy over his wife Hermione’s friendship with King Polixenes “is crucial to the whole meaning of the play”, Hill said. A final embrace as Leontes is reconciled with his wife was also spared.
“After all, it’s not an Iranian production and although of course we want to respect their culture and rules, we have to be faithful to the play.”
Costumes for actresses in the modern-dress production were modified to meet dress code requirements — long loose-fitting clothes and scarves to cover their necks and hair.
“It’s not very comfortable but obviously we wanted to respect the local culture,” said actress Anne-Louise Ross. The British group was invited to perform four nights at the Fajr International Festival as part of a British Council initiative to forge cultural links between the two countries. The play marks the first performance by a British theatre group in Iran since Sir Derek Jacobi’s Hamlet in 1977.
Despite hitches with electronic subtitles into Farsi, theatregoers were delighted: “Britain is the home of theatre and Shakespeare is the best. There was some touching but that’s normal now. Things are not as bad here as some people think,” said one young Iranian.