Features Published 10 September 2015

Sarah Chew: “It’s a question of the spoken and the unspoken”

Stewart Pringle speaks to Sarah Chew about Lilac Wine, her drag fairytale of modern Iran.
Stewart Pringle

There was quite a pause between my first encounter with Lilac Wine – A Fairytale of Modern Iran, and my conversation with its creator Sarah Chew. I saw the work presented at the Roundhouse Studio as a work in progress in April of this year, having been tipped off by lighting designer Christopher Nairne that this was something a bit special, and not something to be missed. Christopher was right, and I left Lilac Wine both seriously impressed by the force and elasticity of Chew’s story-telling, and seething with rage at the injustice and subjugation her play describes. The pause between that showing and our conversation, which came immediately before a new series of performances at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern at the end of July was born out of caution on Chew’s part – caution about protecting the identities of those women who inspired her story, and about the impact of her work on her own future travel and safety.

Watching Lilac Wine is a troubling justification of her concern. A fictionalised retelling of Chew’s own visit to Tehran in early 2010, in the final weeks of the Green Revolution – part of the Arab Spring which broke out following President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s controversial re-election – it’s a story of culture shock and dislocation.

But it’s also a fairytale, built from familiar figures of cruel, violent men and defiant women. Its narrator, a version of Chew who takes her own journey as a theatre maker through a tumultuous land at a chaotic time, is forced to re-consider her apolitical identity as an artist and a guest in the country. Her own position as a political playwright is suddenly seen against the context of those working and creating in a culture where the separation of the personal from the political is not a choice, but an impossibility. As she explains:

“It was a country on the brink of a civil war the Arab Spring was springing, and everyone was watching very carefully to see what happened next. And there’d always been this issue regarding Iran’s nuclear capability, and suddenly that meant that one’s position as a British person, at a state-sponsored Iranian festival suddenly became a very complicated one.”

Chew’s play is constantly aware of the fractious position of its narrator, just as Chew was made aware of the controversial nature of her participation in the Visiting Arts programme which had taken her to Tehran as part of the Fadjr International Theatre Festival.

“Not everyone was happy about it. Peter Brooke was supposed to appear but didn’t, some artists were holding a strike, and had we known about that it might have changed out decision to attend. It was actually breaking the strike rather than our presence in Iran that caused myself and a few other artists some concern.”

I ask if she’s glad she attended, how she felt about participating in a state sponsored event in Iran at that time, with all the ethical ambiguities that raises: “I suppose I think it’s better to have a conversation than not, and to address these things rather than ignore them – I’ve visited Israel as well as Palestine, I’ve worked in places which do have these human rights issues.” Lilac Wine certainly speaks unflinchingly about them, though stopping short of direct criticism of the state. It observes, it travelogues, and in doing so, and in blending the specific with the primal bases of story-telling, it walks the line between expressionist and explicitly political theatre. One of its greatest strengths is its placement of rage within the audience, rather than on the stage – by refusing to conflagrate and insisting on distance in its form.

That question of positioning, of the shifting significance of an artist’s presence at a theatre festival, at a state-sponsored theatre festival no less, is one that drives the play’s self-reflexive structure. As the narrator relates her experiences moving through Tehran, she communicates with her friend The Drag Queen back in England. They’re building a show together, and the expectations of absolute free expression the Drag Queen embodies and describes, seen against the pressures on the slightest manifestation of rebellion which Iranian women encounter describe some of Lilac Wine’s most affecting tensions. At the same time The Drag Queen contains Chew’s reference to the history of bravery and audacity in the face of persecution that cabaret, and gay cabaret, long represented. It’s a reminder that subversive forms will always flourish under restrictions.

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This notion of resistance under pressure is one that Chew found particularly moving and inspirational during her time in Tehran:

“I was absolutely staggered by the work that I saw – it was actually incredibly political. You’re told what the rules are, and they’re quite constricting, but then you see these local artists who absolutely don’t follow those rules.” It’s a question of the spoken and the unspoken, of symbols that resonate with those “in the know”: “Censors there work on words, and so there were so many actions or decisions taken in these pieces (green props for instance, a character would take a drink from a green cup and the audience would cheer) having these incredibly strong political and emotional reactions to something you’re not able to necessarily process or decode, because they’re hidden away.”

It’s something Chew has been able to relate back to her own work and her own performance practice, it’s what gives Lilac Wine an inspirational and forward-looking perspective together with its empathy and rage and the abused and persecuted:

“When life is hard and joy is limited, and you take a risk whenever you perform, there is a real commitment to joy in every performance, and when this is a very dark story that commitment to joy is more important than ever.”

Lilac Wine will be performed at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern on 16th September and Camden People’s Theatre on the 27th September 2015

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Stewart Pringle

Writer of this and that and critic for here and there. Artistic director of the Old Red Lion Theatre.

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