Shakespeare in Iran
By Geneive Abdo
International Herald Tribune
August 25, 2000
Shakespeare wouldn't recognize it. Romeo is a heartthrob from the Iranian
cinema; Juliet appears on stage with a veil covering her real hair and
a braid dangling down her back.
West meets East every evening at the Vahdat opera hall here, when some
900 Iranians come out to see "Romeo and Juliet," satisfying what
the director Ali Rafii calls "their real need for love." Few
playgoers have ever read the play in its original, but that's beside the
Rafii, a Sorbonne-educated dramatist who was banned for several years
from directing plays in Iran , believes he is achieving a higher purpose.
By breaking the unspoken taboo of glorifying a Western icon, he hopes art
will fill a void in Iran .
Since the Islamic revolution 21 years ago, Iranians have generally been
isolated from the outside world, deprived of classical music, dance and
the arts, among many other things. "Theater is not supposed to change
the world, but it shows the world can change," Rafii says, sitting
backstage and brewing tea in a large samovar.
The fact that an estimated 55,000 Iranians will see "Romeo and
Juliet" over 60 performances points up a paradox in Iran . Conservatives
in the establishment have imposed a severe cultural and political crackdown
in recent weeks, at a level unseen for at least three years.
Progressive newspapers have been shuttered; journalists and writers
have been imprisoned, and an Iranian -run, Los Angeles-based television
network offering prerevolutionary music and movies piped in illegally via
satellite has been declared "a plot sponsored by the U.S. Central
Yet Rafii managed to meet the approval of state censors, even though
the official in the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance who gave him
permission for this production has since been dismissed, for unrelated
reasons. "I never found that I was censoring myself," Rafii says.
Ataollah Mohajerani, the minister of culture, has worked hard to ensure
that art thrives independently of the frequent political crises that alter
the balance of political power here. Under his leadership, Iranian films
banned for years have been shown; art and music once considered "un-Islamic"
have come out of the woodwork, and secularist writers have even been awarded
prizes for their work.
As a result of this liberalization, Mohajerani has been under severe
attack, with many conservatives demanding that the moderate president,
Mohammed Khatami, force him from office.
"Mohajerani is a very cultured and enlightened man who has done
great things for the arts," Rafii says.
"I knew I could produce a successful Shakespeare play," he
continues, "because there are young people now who have a different
attitude about Western culture. They embrace and appreciate it and don't
think about it the way the older generation did."
Juliet, played by an elegant woman named Satareh, says the new experience
has been enlightening. "I am seduced by Shakespeare," she says.
"I'm in love with it."