Iran invariably hits the headlines for reasons other than theatre. My meeting with an Iranian independent theatre troupe in Gdansk is a refreshing look at the performing arts in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Mostafa Koushki is a director and actor. He came to Gdansk with a team of 13 artists and the troupe performed A Midsummer Night’s Dream on two successive nights to a full house. In Farsi this play is called Sen nocy letniej.
We met at Gdansk Shakespeare Theatre, during Shakespeare’s Festival in Gdansk 2018. We communicated via Shadi Azmoodeh, a charming female interpreter.
Rivka Jacobson: How difficult is it for an Iranian troupe to travel to Europe?
Mostafa Koushki: First of all, we didn’t intend to travel to Europe. But the director of the Gdansk Shakespeare festival came to Iran to see our International theatre festival named FADJR, which takes place around February every year. He enjoyed our show and asked us to bring it to Gdansk.
RJ: Is FADJR is a festival for drama only or also for dance performances?
MK: We have no dancers but stage plays, street performances, experimental theatres.
RJ: Can you tell us something about theatre in Iran; because we, in the West, associate Iran with politics rather than culture.
Mostafa Koushki: Just like Poland, Iran was known as the centre of theatre now. We perform more than 120 performances every night in Tehran, and more than 40,000 people watch the shows every night in Iran. If the people all over the world don’t know about the art or theatre in Iran, it’s better to turn CNN and BBC off and read books instead.
RJ: But for those who will not dare travel to Iran, can you enlighten us?
HASSAN: There are no limitations on people travelling here. We have people from all over the world coming to Iran, even artists from America.
RJ: In England, for instance, the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a mother with young family, travelling to Iran to see her family, has been arrested and sentence to years in prison. That initself an enormous deterrent to many people to feel that a trip to Iran may be one way trip…
MOSTAFA KOUSHKI : Let’s continue talking about art instead. We have a lot of famous artists in music, cinema, theatre, and sculpture. We have a director Asker Farhadi, Abbas Kiarostami,Majid Majidi. In theatre we have Amirreza Kouhestani.
RJ: Is there a freedom to choose any play you want to direct? Or is it observed, and you have to gain permission for performances?
MOSTAFA KOUSHKI : We have general observation over what we are doing, in theatre. But those are rules we respect.
RJ: But because Iran is a Muslim country there are strict rules over what women can do. To our surprise, you had women actresses on stage performing without a hijab. Is that allowed?
MK: The actresses were wearing wigs, so because it wasn’t actual hair it was fine. Our performance passed the observations, so it was no problem.
RJ: Are men and women allowed to hug each other on stage, for instance?
MOSTAFA KOUSHKI : No. It’s against the rules of Islamic republic of Iran.
RJ: What made you choose this particular play?
HASSAN: Shakespeare is extremely popular in our country – we learn about him in schools, in universities. Our company, Mostaghel Company, has focused on Shakespeare for many years.
RJ: Which plays you have performed have been the most popular with audiences?
HASSAN: So far, A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been the most popular with the audience, but also Romeo and Juliet.
RJ: Do you think Romeo and Juliet is so universal because of the relationship between the two young characters or the love?
HASSAN: Love, the international conception, means the same everywhere. So, it must be love.
RJ: Do the Iranian people prefer romance, or tragedy, or what genre? In England, they prefer fighting between two brothers.
HASSAN: In Iran, people are divided. They have two parts inside, because of the individual lifestyles of people and then how people are seen from the government’s side. We are split between loving comedy and loving tragedy.
RJ: What took you to the theatre?
MOSTAFA KOUSHKI: When I was 14, I started working as an actor. Then I chose to continue with directing and stage directing.
RJ: Could you tell us about the stage design of this play?
MOSTAFA KOUSHKI : I am especially interested in designing dynamic sets. How the actors perform and move inform how I design the set. You can see a lot of magic in the set – how it moves, how the audience can imagine more. When the design is so minimalist.
RJ: The music in last night’s performance beautifully blends into the performance. Who is the composer?
MOSTAFA KOUSHKI : A guy named Behrang Abbaspour. He was with us from the first rehearsals and then composed his own music for the performance.
RJ: In the show, the women wore baggy trousers, which I think worked very well. Were they designed specifically as a costume or because of what women are allowed to wear on stage?
Mostafa Koushki: It follows the rules of what women can wear on stage.
RJ: What was the idea behind Oberon’s face paint in the performance?
MOSTAFA KOUSHKI : Our makeup designer had an idea to paint the three elves’ faces differently, but not so that they were extremely unnatural.
RJ: Are the audiences already familiar with the play? Will they have read the play before they see it performed?
MOSTAFA KOUSHKI : A lot of people, even if they don’t work in any industry related to theater, read Shakespeare. But it’s true that most people see Shakespeare rather than read it.
RJ: Do offer the audience a programme with the play synopsis and production images? If yes, will picture of the women in the play feature in the programme?
Mostafa Koushki: Yes,we do.and it’s ok if put the photos of all actors and actresses in it.
RJ: Who subsidises theatre and the arts in Iran? Do you get money from the government or do you only make money from ticket sales?
MOSTAFA KOUSHKI : Just from selling tickets, especially because we are an independent company in Iran.
RJ: If you are invited to perform in England, how is the money arranged? Would the theatre in England have to fund you, or would you fund yourselves?
MOSTAFA KOUSHKI : Because the show is so big, especially with the set, money has to be tightly managed. To come to this festival, the organising group covered the expenses for us.
RJ: What is your next project?
HASSAN: We are going to work on The Tempest.
MOSTAFA KOUSHKI : We won’t tell you how we are going to adapt it, because you should see it instead.
RJ: Many thanks, it was a tremendous pleasure meeting you and seeing your production. I hope the leaders of your country will see the benefit of sponsoring and exporting culture.