Friday, April 13, 2012
THEATRE REVIEW: PRISONER
JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
13 APR 2012
Pictured: Bahareh Yaraghi, Razi Shawahdeh, Mirian Katrib
TORONTO - Even the most cursory examination of the history of revolutions is enough to underscore the terrible truth in the old adage that sometimes the devil you know is preferable to the one that you don’t.
In France, in Russia, and more recently in countries like Iran and the former Yugoslavia, the overthrow of repressive regimes has resulted in the imposition of an even more repressive regime, as new rulers struggle to remake the world according to their vision, regardless of the will of the population at large.
In Iran, however, it was not a case of replacing the devil they knew — in this case, the former Shah and his henchmen — with a devil they didn’t, for the revolution in Iran was fomented in the mosques of the nation, driven not by devils but by the nation’s foremost clerics and holy men. Despite its religious roots, however, the regime that replaced the Shah proved to be at least as repressive as the one it replaced and three decades on, it still manages to cling only to the very edges of the civilized world, mired as it is in a hidebound social and political theocracy.
For Marina Nemat, that revolution is not a master of history, but of memory — a memory documented in a pair of books that trace her often horrific voyage through the belly of the beast. Now, the first of those books, PRISONER OF TEHRAN, has been brought to the stage in a new and often moving adaptation written and directed by Maja Ardal. PRISONER OF TEHRAN opened Wednesday on the Theatre Passe Muraille mainstage, a production of Contrary Company in association with TPM.
PRISONER begins in the days before the revolution when Nemat, played here by Bahareh Yaraghi, is simply a carefree schoolgirl, nurturing a strong Christian conviction despite her unabashedly secular ways. Slowly, she is drawn into the incipient revolution, but once it has been accomplished, she quickly begins to question the repressive ways of the new Islamic masters. That questioning not only puts her at cross-purposes with her educators, but lands her in jail as well. There, she is first tortured, then sentenced to death, redeemed ultimately only by the passion she has awakened in one of her torturers. Forced into a loveless marriage in order to protect her family, she faces further hardship when her new husband is assassinated by political activists and, finally, she is forced to flee her homeland for safe harbour in Canada.
Using a set of simple, stately elegance created by Julia Tribe and subtly lit by Steven Hawkins, Ardal (working with associate director Kim Blackwell) contents herself with a more or less straightforward retelling of Nemat’s story, using Razi Shawahdeh and Mirian Katrib to flesh out a wide range of supporting roles, as her story shifts back and forth in time. Happily, she draws considered, committed work from all three of her performers, although Katrib’s performance is sometimes marked by a certain archness that hopefully will dissipate during the length of the run.
But, while there is much to like in this adaptation, it is finally diminished, one suspects, by the reverence with which Ardal has so obviously approached the source material. Ultimately, while there is no doubting her success, it must be said that in an adaptation that tells us far more than it shows us, she has succeeded finally in putting the book on stage, rather than a fully realized play that tells the same story.