Vis and Ramin
Metro Arts & Baran
Metro Arts Sue Benner Theatre
10 – 14 May 2016
Reviewed by Xanthe Coward
To seek refuge in a safe corner from the bitterness of the world, to form the world in a different shape, the shape of your dreams…
– Nasim Khosravi, Director
The noisy chaos of the Metro Arts foyer is not due to the Anywhere Fest show about to start in the next theatre. The chatter and shouts and riotous fun of a close community brought together on a Friday night is contained in the ancient city of Marv, out front of the Sue Benner Theatre, and it’s probably as authentic as we’ll get without being in a far off marketplace or port. We’re welcomed, and issued with passports (APPROVED), a couple of hand stamped silver coins and strict instructions to read the city rules, posted on the wall, part of the foyer design created largely from cardboard.
We’re invited to sample, for the cost of a single coin, a coconut macaroon and hot black tea (its steam smells of thyme), poured from a copper pot. Poppy is told by the keeper of the tea that she may have the second coin for herself; she’s very pleased and politely thanks the guy before nudging me with her elbow in glee. This is because after we’d pocketed our passports and coins, and headed upstairs to find the Ladies (I always forget which floor the bathrooms are on), she had said to me, “Ohhh, I wish I could keep just one coin for the memory!”. I smiled and reminded her that we can have whatever it is we wish for if we believe we are deserving of it…
Something about the fragrance of the tea, or the contented noise, or the smiles all around remind me of the lovely Eshai Teahouse at Woodford Folk Festival. Not last year’s, when it had moved to Folklorica, but years ago, when an intimate, leafy little set up first appeared on site, by the bridge and the wood-fired pizza oven on the way to The Village Green. But we are not in the familiar grounds of Woodfordia now and this is the best attempt I’ve seen yet, of matching this particular foyer to a show.
For some reason I expect to be able to smell the heady scent of red roses…
Banned in Iran since the revolution, this ancient Persian tale of forbidden love is packed with rebellion and upheaval. The famous classic has been revitalised with bilingual story telling and sophisticated multi-media for a dynamic contemporary performance experience.
Baran’s production is not so much sophisticated as rustic and its dynamic stillness is perhaps what is meant by the reference here. This is not to say that the show is anything but what it was intended to be: a retelling of the much-loved tale of Vis and Ramin, a Persian love story from 2000 years ago, which has inspired or influenced countless retellings. (C’mon, it was James Franco, remember? I was always going to link to that!).
The story is believed to belong to the Parthian period and is written in poetry by Fakhraddin Gurgani about 1000 years ago. Gurgani is a pioneer in writing love stories in poetry and his style was largely emulated by later poets such as Nezami. “Vis o Ramin” is one of the most influential ancient love stories. The story is about a love affair between two young lovers who sacrifice name, family, social obligations and everything else to be with each other. It was loved and admired by people long after it was written.
Images of the language become almost provocative as they are projected across bodies clad in all white everything: simple, asymmetrically finished tunics worn over pants. The feet are bare. We watch the words and pictures moving playfully across the white fabric and black backdrop, and we read the English subtitles for the words spoken in Farsi, which is the bulk of it; the entire narrative component. I love hearing the language; it’s beautifully poetic and it’s almost a shame when the actors break the fourth wall to address us in English. Of course this is the device, the connection between actors and audience must be established, and we are asked what we think might happen, or if a character’s action is right or justified. It works well the first couple of times, taking us by surprise and establishing a genuine connection between storytellers and listeners. We’re invested because the storytellers care about what we think, which means we have to focus and know what’s going on. NO PRESSURE. Later, the flow of the narrative is interrupted once too often but then suddenly it’s the end and we are to decide what will happen next.
The audience is invited to join the cast on stage, and talk and share wine with them. It’s a clever debrief, a vital element when such an intense story is cut short. The company want to know what we think should happen next. They want to know how we feel about…love. And they want to be sure that their message is clear, that the story will continue to endure through the ages.
Some beautiful motifs seek to awaken our senses, but they are brief. The production throws light, literally, onto the passion of the lovers; we see them in various gorgeous embraces. This is not only a necessary sensuous element in what is essentially a static storytelling event, but an authentic interpretation of the perception of love in ancient Persian times.
The story reveals a great deal about a period in Iranian history about which very little is known. The traditions and customs of those times do not necessarily match those of our times. The story talks about marriage of sister and brother – common amongst the ruling class at the time. This is something that is loathed for some centuries, but the story talks about a different time, different people, and different traditions from ours.
There are also the subject and the main character of the book that create a stir. The story is about an earthly love, one that is all about desire. This is very different from the notion of love that became popular in later centuries. The love that has a connection to the heavens and almighty was not known in ancient Iran. In all ancient Iranian love stories, love is very much the love based on the attraction of two people of opposite sex.
She dares to fall in love with her husband’s brother for no other motive than love.
I read the program notes the next day and discover that the performers are not all trained actors but members of the community who have come together to pass this story on. Was I even aware that we have such a vibrant Iranian community in Brisbane? Without feeling too stupid or beating myself up about it, I admit, no, I was not.
I’m at a stage where I question the way we train performers and prepare for performance… No, I mean now more than ever. Having been privy lately to the traditions of Columbian theatre maker, Beatriz Camargo, and other organic, collaborative, “devised” approaches to making theatre (the term has lost all sense of wonder and immediately conjures in my mind the weird and sometimes wonderful pieces created by the students of tired, jaded, lazy Drama teachers who omit the guiding, directing and inspiring components of teaching Drama. Of course, when collaborative “devised” work is done well, the results are incredibly rewarding for all involved), I look for various ways into the performance. I want to be drawn in by the colour, the text, the movement, the sound, the shape, the story, the gaze of the actors… I want to view the performance on the same vibration as the performers bring it. I want to absorb their energy and go away into the night…changed, or at the very least, affected.
My favourite performer is Nasim Takavar (Vis), a genuine delight, graceful and so gently, quietly confident in a way we don’t often see in a female heroine. It’s refreshing to see such beautifully contained strength. (It’s no surprise that Takavar works in the early childhood sector by day).
Director, Nasim Khosravi has certainly achieved a lovely, innocent, lyrical tone to proceedings and with this style establishes Baran as a company to keep an eye on. While the emphasis seems to be on the text in this instance, I don’t doubt that Khosravi will continue to explore more challenging vocal and physical elements in performance. I would also welcome a live musical element in future performances. (Did an earlier version include the musicians on stage?).
A number of well respected Brisbane practitioners have contributed to the creative development of this production and now I believe Baran is ready to take the next step, perhaps, for example, by inviting into the room, a writer and director of Michael Futcher’s calibre. Another set of eyes on this theatrical style will likely elevate it, and give it broader appeal, if that is indeed what Khosravi and her team desires.
I heard such an interesting comment in a workshop today, with regard to a different production but nevertheless relevant to this one. A mainstage company had recently retold a beloved ancient tale using the most expensive design, and the most impressive and technically proficient choreography and the best dancers, while a less sophisticated version had achieved a longer lasting impact on the viewer because there was a genuine connection between the performers and the content – the story they shared – and thus, a genuine connection between performers and audience was established (and remembered by at least one audience member). As theatre makers we cannot afford to forget the value of finding a way to connect with the material and with the audience. As theatre lovers we recognise when a connection is made and a story is successfully told because those are the stories that stay etched on our minds and hearts long after the season is over.