views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Space
25th April 2018



Photography provided by The Space

None of us needs reminding that everyone is a person, with hopes, dreams, duties, rights, a family, a heritage - except when we do. No matter our education, there is always somewhere that's known to us, yet far enough away to be shrouded in mystery, its people along with it. For the average person, Iran is just that place - we know it from the outside, for the politics that come from it and the politics that are directed at it. We know it as an entity rather than a society. Rightly or wrongly, this is all that our regular sources of enlightenment tell us. Enter Citizen.

Inspired by political events that have shaped her life and that of others, Sepy Baghaei's mission is to lift some of that mystery off the place and its people, and explore what it means to be dual-heritage Iranian in a world of preconceptions, and sometimes hostility too. At times serious and at others disarmingly light-hearted, Citizen aims to bring the culture to life, employing a healthy dose of Persian self-deprecation on the way.

The production contains Farsi language throughout, a good decision which served to add authenticity and atmosphere to the experience. The use of fables was also effective in conveying what it means to have a mixed heritage - particularly in terms of not knowing quite where you belong, something that anyone 'from' more than one place can relate to. A particularly strong segment was the 'token ethnic' in the workplace, a concept that every culture is all too familiar with, first hand or otherwise.

The decision to use a wide range of media - songs, stories, imaginary scenarios to name but three - serves to break the piece up and ensure variety, though at times it feels that this has been taken too far, leaving the production feeling somewhat disjointed. There were moments when I wasn't sure whom I was watching and whether the scene related to anything that had happened previously - and as soon as you have an audience member wondering whether they've missed something, you have an audience member in danger of drifting.

The house layout raised some questions – a lot of the action took place on the main stage, to the side of the audience, which was seated in facing rows with a further performing space in between them. This meant that we were craning our necks for a large part of the play, with the action unnecessarily far away. The rationale was unclear, as both spaces were host to the full range of elements – personal, theatrical, loud, quiet – and it did leave me wondering whether the production would have worked better in a smaller venue rather than trying to fill the generous room at The Space. That said, all three actors filled the room well with their projection, ensuring that nothing went unheard, aside from a couple of occasions when shouting over music.

I also wonder what decision was behind the use of a tablet to display the names of the characters that Nalân Burgess was playing – sure, it served its purpose in ensuring that we knew what public figure we were watching, but it felt clunky and distracting, and I couldn't help thinking that her confidence in her performance ought to have made it unnecessary.

The production repeatedly returns to the story of Behrouz Boochani, who was held in Australia's Manus Island detention centre - David Djemal's portrayal of quiet stoicism in the face of degrading conditions and inhumane treatment is fitting, but would have benefitted from much more variation in pace and volume. This repeated segment ought to move and shock in its later stages; not merely tell a distant story. The same applies to the stories of families separated unexpectedly in a changing political environment - for a cast deliberately chosen for its mixed heritage and all the experiences that come with it, a lot of the portrayal didn't feel poignant. When it comes to emotional connection, the main danger with such a production is that it absolutely does appeal to anyone with a relatable past, but then falls short in reaching those who have come to learn - and those latter people are surely the main target?

If the purpose of Citizen is to educate then it serves it, and anyone going will feel entertained, enlightened and eager to know more. Its cast is versatile and clearly heavily invested in the piece. However, for such an emotive topic, there were missed opportunities to make it the moving, revelatory piece that it could be.

Citizen opened on 24th April and runs until 5th May 2018 at The Space.

Nearest tube station: Mudchute (DLR)

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