The Hub, Edinburgh
August, 2008

One of the sub-strands in this year’s “Artists Without Borders” theatrical programme in the Edinburgh International Festival is work from Iran. I have previously mentioned Abbas Kiarostami’s video installation Looking At Tazieh, which placed reviewers in the surprising and revelatory situation of watching (footage of) the audience much more than of the play which they in turn are watching. That play is a ritual drama about the martyrdom of the Imam Hussein in the first century of Islam. Now, the same space in the Hub hosts a modern Iranian drama by Attila Pessyani and his Bazi Theatre Company.

I say “modern”: we see a transistor radio and even an iPod, but to all intents and purposes this is a timeless tale of women living on a secluded island, mourning one death and apprehensive about another, or at least a departure. The dramatis personae are led by the matriarch Bibi, with her two daughters and her son’s widow. The social claustrophobia, the unforgiving landscape, the talk of sea and sky (the “Devil’s ship” of the title is a particular ill-omened moon) and of course the female community are all reminiscent of Lorca: I intend no disrespect by calling this a kind of House Of Bernarda Allah, with the women dressed in jilbab and masks rather than mourning black.

There are two other figures in the play. One is a mannequin of the dead Ismael, which periodically sits up from its grave on the sand-covered stage to reassert itself as a significant presence which informs Bibi’s manner of existence. The other, I’m afraid, is a puzzle. A woman whose mask is red as opposed to the black of the others’, who is seen in the company of the daughter-in-law and to whom no other character reacts, who builds what may be a miniature representation of the island and its inhabitants in the sand downstage and whose long train swathes the others when the night of the Devil’s ship is at its darkest and threatens to carry someone else away. My best guess is that this is the jinniof whom the daughter-in-law asks to be exorcised by Bibi. But the character remains even after the night is passed and her mini-effigy is erased. This is an atmospheric piece of work, but without further exegesis it remains an enigmatic one.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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