My Brother’s Country, The Lowry, Salford Quays, Manchester, 26th27th February 2015
My Brother’s Country portrays the tumultuous life of Fereydoun Farrokhzad, an Iranian singer, TV presenter, poet and political activist who was forced into exile after the 1979 Revolution and ultimately, it is believed, murdered by the Iranian Islamic State in 1992. The play spans nearly three decades as it follows Fereydoun’s life in Berlin in the 1960s, where he was a student and a well-regarded published poet, and to which he returned in exile in 1979; and Tehran, to which he returned from Germany in 1967, the year of his sister’s death, and began performing on radio and TV shows, only to be imprisoned and subsequently forced into exile for activities deemed anti-Islamic, including his outspoken sociopolitical views and speculations about his sexuality.
Javaad Alipoor and Natalie Diddams, co-directors and co-writers of the show, have succeeded to bring this high-energy, high-intensity biography to the stage and tell the story of two countries during a period of great political change, and its effect on the lives of ordinary people and artists in particular. The play opens with an entertaining, pop-star performance by Nicholas Gauci, who plays Fereydoun, and an abstract, poetic performance by Olivia Sweeney, playing his sister, poet and film-maker Forough Farrokhzad. Throughout the play we see a contrast between the freedom his sister enjoys (albeit in death) to continue to recite her highly personal and iconoclastic poetry, while Fereydoun struggles to find creative freedom in a revolting Iran.
The setting is a bohemian café, at once in Berlin and Tehran, as we move between the countries throughout the play: liquor visible on the tables suggesting pre-Revolutionary Iran and a broken-wall backdrop suggests the imminent fall of the Wall. However, this is a little ambiguous, and perhaps more changes to certain details of the set would have been interesting and more orientating, adding to the specific atmospheres of the two countries in the different decades.
The action begins with journalists Anja, played by Tracey-Anne Liles, and Arkadiusz, played by Matthew Curnier, running onto the stage, reacting excitedly to the sounds of rioting and protesting that can be heard off-stage. Unfortunately, the off-stage noise was a little too loud and thus distorted the opening dialogue between these two characters. Moreover, the performers seemed to take a little while to warm up, and the acting at first felt a little flat and uncertain. This was, perhaps, because parts of the script would have been new to the actors themselves: as we learnt from the crew during a post-show talk, although the play has been in development for many months, the initial script has been completely transformed and continues to evolve. According to the directors, the script was altered during the initial actors’ read-through and again during rehearsals in which the actors were encouraged to improvise. In fact, since the play’s opening night, the script and performances had changed again. Perhaps this dynamic and fluid approach to the script and its performance has had both positive and negative effects. On occasion, some of the dialogue felt superfluous. It would be interesting to see the show again, to see what further edits are made, as the directors said they planned both to continue developing the play.
In addition to dramatizing a stirring life-story, the directors have created an experimental piece of theatre. Some of the audience were seated on-stage, around the tables as if customers in the café, and at times, Forough and Fereydoun would perform their poetry and sing directly at an audience member. This showed effectively how the main characters were disembodied, or split apart from themselves: Forough through her death, and Fereydoun as an artist who was not free to express himself. However, at one point Forough performed almost the entirety of an emotionally-charged monologue face-to-face with one audience member (perhaps forewarned?), which seemed unnecessary and was a little distracting from what was being said.
There was effective use of props throughout the show; particularly, a long white sash-ribbon that hung from the ceiling and was used by the actors to represent, at various times, a baby being born, imprisonment and oppression, and even Fereydoun’s fatal stabbing. Patriarchal society is also hinted at in a scene during which the male characters, Fereydoun and Arkadiusz, discuss politics at a table in the café, while in the shadows off-stage, Forough twirls and dances while Anja cradles a baby made of the long ribbon. This scene also effectively shows time passing, as we suddenly move from 1960s Berlin to 1970s Iran.
Though the case of women’s freedom in Islamic countries was not particularly emphasised, nor the controversy surrounding Ferreydoun’s sexuality, both simmer beneath the events being portrayed. Throughout the play, Forough wears a plain black dress, her arms bared along with her poet’s soul from the safety of the grave: she died in a car crash in 1967, before the revolution brought Sharia law to the country. In contrast, the living characters must conform, and we see Anja wearing a scarf across her shoulders when she moves to Iran with Fereydoun, and the continually breathless Fereydoun, whose costume throughout is a buttoned-down, purple silk shirt; he is at once dancing monkey and truth teller, often accompanied by simulated sounds of cheering fans, contrasting with Forough’s silent audience.
Journalist and TV producer Anja begins a relationship with Ferydoun in Berlin, and their dynamic was very well written and performed. The play begins as if character profiling both the four characters and two countries: Germany and Iran. Thus, the story for me did not truly begin until we see the newly wed (and new parents) Anja and Ferydoun arguing over a return to Iran. Ferydoun is reluctant as he continues to ‘grieve for a country that doesn’t know what poetry is’, while Anja, a German, wants to return for financial opportunities, temporally orienting the audience as a reminder that we are still in the time of pre-Revolution Iran. The overthrow of the Shah was supported by various leftist as well as Islamic groups who were tired of the Shah’s lavish lifestyle and a regime that favoured the socially-privileged, including foreign-educated Iranians, and discouraged religious practice, while the masses remained impoverished and deeply religious.
There were some very strong lines throughout the play, such as ‘Iran is a country where you say one thing in your house and another thing on the street’. Fereydoun is afraid that to move back to Iran would mean renouncing his poetry and freedom of expression. Indeed, when he returns and works as a singer and entertainer, he bemoans having to ‘lie on stage’ every night as Islamic revolutionary fervour grows, and after the revolution he was sent to prison before being forced into exile for his ranting rhetoric against the state. However, this episode in Fereydoun’s life his final and bravely outspoken struggle against a changing society could have been, I believe, highlighted more, perhaps through dialogue rather than relying on impassioned but disjointed speeches and songs, as his imprisonment is only related to the audience in brief dialogue after he is released and subsequently forced into exile.
After the show we were lucky to be able to take part in a post-show talk with the crew. The script is based on a large body of research, and the directors were keen to capture the landscape and atmosphere of Berlin and Tehran. All the characters, we were told, were based on real people, except the journalist, Arjadiusz, who was introduced as a way to explore Fereydoun’s sexuality – though this was not as prominent in the play as might have been expected.
Fereydoun was murdered in 1992 by, it is believed, the Islamic State of Iran, and there has been speculation about whether he was killed primarily for his homosexuality or for his politics. A member of the audience, who was a friend of the man himself, told us that he believed Fereydoun was murdered not for his sexuality (as, he said, there were many openly gay men in Tehran), but because he was a charismatic and thus highly-persuasive ‘voice of humanity and liberty’ who devoted his life to charity and to returning Iran to its cultural roots, believing that the Muslim clerical authorities were pushing the country back thousands of years. The audience member was also keen to emphasise that Fereydoun was a martyr who invited his own murder through his ranting rhetoric, which was indeed captured brilliantly by Nicholas’s performance, which he increasingly amped up, fluctuating from joyful singing to desperate, angry ranting. The ending of the show was particularly moving, as Fereydoun’s singing and dancing is gradually silenced and restrained by the white ribbon that begins to tie him up as he struggles against it, leading to the final silencing of murder as we see him double-up in pain and fall to the ground. In the finale, Fereydoun returns to the stage to sing an Iranian pop song, but perhaps this over-ran somewhat, as most of the audience members did not seem to understand what the song was about.
My Brother’s Country was brought to the stage with the help of Routes North, an initiative that offers a support package to new theatre-makers in partnership with the ARC in Stockton, The Lowry in Manchester and Theatre in the Mill in Bradford, and was produced by Saroush (community theatre Northern Lines’ new professional production arm). Javaad Alipoor and Natalie Diddams have worked together brilliantly to produce a stirring piece of thought-provoking theatre that they hope to continue to develop and tour nationally, and ultimately, to take it to Germany. This news was particularly welcomed by one audience member who praised Javaad and Natalie for bringing such an important piece of Iranian history to the stage, but remarked that better marketing would allow the story to reach more people, particularly the Iranian diaspora.