Iranian Theatre

The Dead Cannot Be Censored

Roberto Ciulli has been organising exchanges between Iranian and German theatre companies for the past ten years. During the most recent visit by a group from Tehran to the "Theater an der Ruhr" in Mülheim the more oblique, indirect criticism was accompanied for the first time by open critical dissent. Peter Phillip reports

​​There is no point to apolitical theatre according to Roberto Ciulli, theatre director of the "Theater an der Ruhr" in Mülheim. The 75-year-old director and theatre manager knows what he is talking about: his productions are nothing if not political, especially his international projects. One of these is the exchange programme between Mülheim and Iran.

Over the past ten years the "Theater an der Ruhr" has made a number of visits to Iran and hosted a variety of Iranian companies in Mülheim. This year’s "Theaterlandschaft Iran" festival included appearances by around 60 actors, directors and other personnel.

For Milan-born Ciulli it is clear that Iranian theatre is political in a different way to German theatre. The Iranian laws and regulations mean that much of what is said in theatre is couched in oblique, indirect language, doubly so in times of political or social tension in Iran.

Clear and undisguised criticism

All the greater the surprise this time then, even for the experienced Ciulli, that the message was clear and unambiguous. At least it was so in one case, and where it was least expected.

Roberto Ciulli (photo: dpa)
Ten years ago, Roberto Ciulli, head of the Mühlheimer Theater, initiated what has become a lively and successful exchange between German and Iranian theatre artists

​​At the end of the impressive and spectacular pantomime ballet "Unglaublich aber wahr" (incredible, but true) one of the actors, the 23-year-old Afshin Ghaffarian, began to talk. He talked in German, at first, it seemed, with a bit of a stammer, then clearly and understandably: he talked of freedom for Iran and sported a green wristband – symbol of the Iranian opposition party and their feeling of having been cheated of election victory.

It was an unusually candid moment. And one not to be repeated during the week in Mülheim. Instead, the more familiar tactics came into play, reducing censorship to absurdity: indirect language, images and metaphors – the kind of thing that is very difficult to censor. Resort to the techniques of passion plays (officially permitted and encouraged in Iran), for example, or the works of famous poets, old fables or the use of puppets – as in "The Earth and the Wheel" – blended masterfully with the performances of the actors.

For Afshin Ghaffarian his directness was no big deal. He had only expressed what millions of other young people in Iran today felt and thought. Did he not fear repercussions? He had already said the same thing on stage in Tehran, he says, with a shrug of the shoulders. Were something to happen to him now, well, "that’s just the way it is."

Of course, for the Mülheim theatre’s performances in Iran there is necessarily a great deal of adaptation to be done, says Ciulli. It is strictly forbidden for men and women to embrace, let alone kiss, on stage.

Curiosities from the world of convoluted criticism

​​On the other hand, the censors themselves are theatre people and have always shown great understanding for such problems. Kisses, for example, are only indicated by indirect gestures or even abstracted into the realms of the absurd by a sudden pause in proceedings while the actor refers the audience to paragraph 25 of the censorship laws. Absurd, but understood by the Iranian audience.

Just as Iran cannot only be described in a one-dimensional way, this is also the case – even more so – for the theatre. What is said on stage is often convoluted and circumscribed. Even to the point where very "awkward" sentences are put into the mouths of dead people – the dead, after all, cannot be censored. Pacifist soldiers may appear, carrying flowers and crossing themselves – for the censor, a clear signal that these cannot be Iranian soldiers…

Techniques like these probably challenge the Iranian theatregoer more than even the most modern German production does German audiences. The Iranian audience must constantly readjust, participate more actively, while German audiences are accustomed to having, the "message" served up to them in a more convenient and palatable form. One more reason why modern Iranian theatre does not simply copy modern foreign theatre.

Contributing to intercultural dialogue

​​It is constantly striving to make "the inexpressible visible," whereas German audiences are more easily "seducible" according to Ciulli.

"Theaterlandschaft Iran" began as part of the "Silkroad Project" but has long since become an independent entity. The early difficulties and mistrust on the part of the Iranian authorities almost forgotten.

Of course there have been easier times over the course of the last ten years – during President Mohamad Khatami’s time, for example, with his reformist culture minister Ataollah Mohajerani. But the programme of exchange continues to go from strength to strength. Never before have so many companies come to Mülheim. Roberto Ciulli is satisfied and he is quite sure of one thing – his contribution to intercultural dialogue is one that is going to continue to bear fruit in abundance.

Peter Philipp

© 2009

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

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