By Rachel Atkin
York International Shakespeare Festival works to bring worldwide celebrations of Shakespeare and his plays into one city, where England’s most recognisable writer can be experienced through a diversity of cultures.
On Monday 15th and Tuesday 16th, I had the pleasure of being invited to see an Iranian production of Coriolanus, performed by the Titus Company from the University of Tehran. Though the company themselves were absent, due to the British Embassy’s decision to not provide visas, we were provided with a recorded version of an alienating, experimental, and yet hugely emotive piece of theatre.
In a Letter of Grief, director Hamed Asgharzadeh wrote: “Eventually we humans someday will meet each other through human drama and we will share our experience to improve our situation”. One of the goals of this festival is to provide a voice to those who are denied it. Though unable to meet the company in person, through the organization of York Theatre Royal and Philip Parr we were still able to see some images of this ground-breaking production. Theatre, no matter where it is done and in what language, provides that voice, and the recording was able to provide it too. Despite the bad news, the audience that came to watch became an outlet for all the hard work the Titus Company had put into their production. In our age, one has to remember not to deny the importance of the arts and the spoken word, even at times when it does not affect us directly.
Coriolanus opened with a long, physical sequence – drums clanged, people yelled out and bodies danced back and forth across the stage with plastic bottles and cooking pots. The sheer intensity of the sequence set the tone for the rest of the performance, which was as strong in movement and sound as it was it speech. Since tension is so rampant in the play, the violence and physicality of the production were appropriate: though there was no actual violence, the movements were able to create a unique, indescribable atmosphere that made it hard to look away. Though we were told that some of the actors weren’t in full costume, the use of white cloth as ‘masks’ drew attention to the complex connections between violence and identity. With the cloths doubling as bandages, the message was complicated as the faces were synthesised with images of war, protest and conflict.
During the workshop that followed, many of us discussed the effects of the language barrier. Watching the production in Farsi with no translation made the piece alienating, yet didn’t detract from its artistic importance. Coriolanus itself is a play which alienates, and the lack of accessible language ironically meant the production as a physical piece was more engaging. Shakespeare, as we concluded, is about the images that you see on stage, and without Shakespeare’s fluent and artistic language we were able to engage more with the visual and auditory aspects that we otherwise might have disregarded. For many, Shakespeare is difficult to understand even in English, and this revelation helped us to understand the importance of the action that supports the dialogue.
This led to a dramatic exercise where we pulled phrases from Volumnia’s speech from Act 1, Scene 3. We attached our own personal images to the phrases, and used these images to inform our delivery of the words. The inseparable relationship between language and theatre became evident through this exercise, and though the Iranian performance stood on its own without the English language, many confessed that there was a constant sense of curiosity throughout. What were they saying? What were the words behind such intense action? Asgharzadeh also said in the letter that “theatre is a living creature and despite the language differences with the audience, it desperately needs its audience’s breath and spirit to be revived on stage”. Theatre speaks on a multitude of levels, and Coriolanus was a performance that forced the audience to contrast and evaluate the importance of these levels. The complexity of the content bled into the experimental nature of the actual production.
The politics of Coriolanus were pertinent not just to the production itself, but also the context surrounding it. Without wanting to make the situation too politicised, theatre is a creative outlet that gives the chance for social and cultural reflection. We could only imagine what the production would have been like if the Iranian company had been here in person to perform it for us, but certain barriers prevented this from happening. The audience and participants across the two days continued to engage with the performance nevertheless, maintaining theatre as the unique and indescribable sensation it should be.