Broadway hits Iran with unique take on ‘Les Miserables’

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A picture taken on December 3, 2018 shows a scene from the musical production Les Miserables, performed by Iranian artists at the Espinas Hotel in the capital Tehran. (AFP)
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A picture taken on December 3, 2018 shows a scene from the musical production Les Miserables, performed by Iranian artists at the Espinas Hotel in the capital Tehran. (AFP)
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A picture taken on December 3, 2018 shows a scene from the musical production Les Miserables, performed by Iranian artists at the Espinas Hotel in the capital Tehran. (AFP)
Updated 03 January 2019
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Broadway hits Iran with unique take on ‘Les Miserables’

  • The new production is being hailed as the most spectacular play yet staged in Iran, and arrives at a topical moment with the ongoing “yellow vest” protests in France
  • The classic work even has the stamp of approval from supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

TEHRAN: Iranian theater director Hossein Parsaee calls Victor Hugo’s classic a “masterpiece without borders” but his groundbreaking production of “Les Miserables” that has hit the stage in Tehran has a few unique twists.
For a start, none of the actresses are allowed to reveal their own hair, and in case their wigs look too natural, the poster advertising the show carries a bright red notice underscoring that their locks are fake.
Nor do the actors and actresses touch hands, or have any other physical contact throughout the musical.
This is, after all, the capital of the Islamic republic, even if the blockbuster show in the luxurious Espinas Hotel feels a world away from the usual stereotypes about Iran.
The concessions to the government’s view of Islamic rules are often subtle.
There is, for instance, always at least one other voice accompanying an actress when she sings — since female solos are taboo — although spotting the second voice can be tricky.
All the other staples of a big-budget musical are here: a live orchestra, billowing dry ice and dazzling light displays.
With a cast, crew and orchestra of over 450, the production has played to sold-out 2,500-strong crowds for six nights a week since it debuted in November.
It was a mainly young, well-heeled crowd when AFP visited recently, and they could barely control their excitement at a rare chance to attend a musical in their home city.
“It was so much more than I expected,” gushed Maryam Taheri, a 45-year-old housewife, after the show.
“The acting, the music, the lighting — it was all perfect.”
Foreign-made TV, film and cartoon versions of “Les Miserables” — a French 19th-century epic on sociopolitical tumult, crime and punishment — have been frequently shown in Iran, where the book has also been translated.
The classic work even has the stamp of approval from supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has described Victor Hugo’s book as “a miracle among novels... a book of kindness, affection and love.”
The new production is being hailed as the most spectacular play yet staged in Iran, and arrives at a topical moment with the ongoing “yellow vest” protests in France.
“After 200 years you see it happening again in France,” contends businessman Mehdi Hooshyar.
“This is good, it shows whenever their society stagnates, something like this happens to move it forward,” he said.
“The revolution is still alive.”
The lavishness of the production has brought its share of criticism, however.
The play has come at a volatile moment in Iran, when anger at economic inequality and corruption dominates political debate.
Tickets, priced between 500,000 and 1.85 million rials (roughly $5 to $20, 4.4 euros to 17.5 euros), are beyond the means of most Iranians.
“No Miserables allowed in,” said a conservative daily, Javan.
Director Parsaee said connecting with Tehran’s elite was part of the point.
“This story is relevant to all times, and all places, and that includes today’s Tehran. It’s about the class divide, the social breakdown and the poverty that exists today,” he told AFP.
“It’s a reminder to the audience that other classes exist and we need to see them and know about them. It’s a serious warning.”
Much of the show seems to run against Iranian taboos, not least the mixed dancing and drinking in brothels and inns.
But Parsaee, who used to head the performing arts department at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, knows the red lines well.
“The review board saw the play in its entirety before we were allowed to begin our run,” he said.
“They found it completely compatible with the rules and regulations. No taboos were broken.”
The director’s love for musicals started around a decade ago when he saw “Oliver Twist,” based on the Charles Dickens classic, in London.
“I was depressed for days, thinking why can’t we do this? I vowed to myself that I would one day make a musical in Iran.”
He did precisely that, bringing “Oliver Twist” to the stage in Tehran last year.
And now he has established a production company to train a new generation of musical directors.
“I’ve opened the door on musicals in Iran, and now, like a relay race, others must advance it to a point that there won’t be any difference between Iran and Broadway.”


Sheikha Alyazia’s ‘mishmash’ of ancient and modern

Her “Mishmash Trails” featured cave-like shapes cut in marble, with the treasure taking the form of imagined ancient eastern coins. (Supplied)
Updated 23 July 2019
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Sheikha Alyazia’s ‘mishmash’ of ancient and modern

  • Inside the Emirati artist’s inaugural solo exhibition in London, ‘I Met a Traveler From an Antique Land’

LONDON: You are searching for treasure. Several potential locations are marked with an ‘x’ on your map. You move methodically from site to site, always to be met with disappointment — never striking gold. Are you, in following trails set by others, missing the treasure ‘hidden’ in plain view?

This is one of the conundrums posed in the artworks of Sheikha Alyazia Bint Nahyan Al-Nahyan, whose inaugural solo exhibition in London presented a thought-provoking range of work fusing the ancient past with modern life.

Her “Mishmash Trails” featured cave-like shapes cut in marble, with the treasure taking the form of imagined ancient eastern coins, reflecting Arab, Roman and Phoenician influences. She described the coins, embedded in the marble, as symbolic of the great treasures buried in secret locations that were sought out and fought over by many. 

Al-Nahyan named her exhibition — held at Pi Artworks from June 25 to July 7 — with the opening line of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous poem “Ozymandias”: “I met a traveler from an antique land.” (Ozymandias is the Greek name for the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses II.)

Mishmash Dirham. (Supplied) 

The poem, published in 1818, imagines a meeting between the narrator and a traveller who describes a ruined statue lying in the desert. The description of the statue is a meditation on the fragility of human power and on the effects of time: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings/Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!/Nothing beside remains: round the decay/Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

“Maybe a positive thing from looking to the past is that it proves it is only human to repeat the mistake and the lesson,” Al-Nahyan told Arab News. “Studying the past is a realization of human nature, individually or in groups, right or wrong. This natural feeling of connectivity is something I usually aim for.”

There is humor in some of her work — particularly the depictions of old commercial airline advertisements from the 1950s and 60s with ancient figures superimposed in the frames. They certainly give the viewer pause for thought about how much our world has changed in the short time since air travel became widely available.

The exhibition’s curator, Janet Rady, said of Al-Nahyan: “She has been practicing art from a very young age and is self-taught. She is incredibly talented, and you see this in the wide range of her work, which uses all sorts of different media. I can’t necessarily call her a pop artist or a collage artist or an installation artist; she is in fact all of these things, but it is the concept behind her work — connecting the past with the present — which is important.”

The UAE’s UK ambassador, Mansoor Abulhoul, was present at the opening and he particularly admired Al-Nahyan’s works based on the classic wooden board game Carrom paired with a modern video game.

Carrom Station in Motion. (Supplied) 

“I first played Carrom with my cousins as a boy, and she has combined it with modern computer games, which is very creative,” he said. He pointed out that her innovative work ties in well with the dynamic of the UAE.

“Next year we have EXPO 2020, with its theme ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future.’ It’s very much about our roots and how we take them forward, how we develop the mind and global cooperation,” he said. 

The exhibition included a short clip from Al-Nahyan’s upcoming film “Athel,” written by Al-Nahyan’s sister, Sheikha Shamsa. It centers on a strange encounter in the desert between a pre-Islamic poet and a modern-day TV presenter. “Athel” is set for release later this year and stars Hala Shiha and Mansour Al-Fili.

“The idea behind it all is taken from the tradition of Arabic poetry — its wisdom and, sometimes, risks,” Al-Nahyan explained. “And ending with a realization of one tribal law putting redemption and family before all.” She added that there are some “light-hearted” moments in the film too.

Arabic poetry is an ongoing inspiration for Al-Nahyan’s work, adding another layer of meaning to many of her pieces.

“The Arabic language is poetic, and Arabs and other cultures around the world have documented their lives through poetry,” she said. “So, for example, when tackling the topic of what is considered treasure, we found different meanings in various verses. Like when (pre-Islamic poet) Zuhair Bin Abi Salma refers to glory as the only true treasure.”

There is a much to absorb and reflect on in this exhibition which opens windows into many facets of Arab history and culture and poses universal questions about humanity and what constitutes real treasure.