Friday, 8 April 2016

Shadows on the Stage: A cry for freedom

dir Gene David Kirk; scr Jay Paul Deratany
Above the Stag Theatre, Vauxhall - 5.April-1.May.16

Inspired by the true story of Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni, who were beaten and publicly executed in Iran in 2005 after being accused of homosexual coercion. The details of the story have never been released, but playwright and human rights lawyer Jay Paul Deratany gathered as much information as possible before weaving the story into a wrenching exploration of youthful hope in a place where freedom of thought is prohibited.

The play centres on Ayaz (Viraj Juneja), a smart 15-year-old whose professor mother (Silvana Maimone) has raised him with an appreciation of banned foreign novels like Catcher in the Rye and Les Miserables. His 14-year-old school friends Mahmoud and Fareed (Andrei Costin and Merch Husey) are more interested in playing football than reading a book. And Fareed is appalled to learn that Ayaz is carrying around "haram" (forbidden) novels. Mahmoud is more curious, and soon they are secretly meeting so Ayaz can recount these taboo stories to him. They also discover that they share a mutual attraction, which of course is also haram. And in a flash of jealousy, Fareed reports them to the authorities. Ayaz is locked up by a brutal jailor (Fanos Xenofos) and both are brought before a mullah judge (George Savvides).

Since it's based on a true story, where this goes is somewhat predictable, but Deratany fills scenes with artful observations, from literary references to quotes about love and humanity from the Quran. What emerges is a sensitive exploration of a society under the grip of Sharia law - although there's a clear sense that this is an oppressive political system using religion as an excuse to dominate and harshly control the population. Especially the female population.

As with most Above the Stag productions, this one is ambitiously staged by director Gene David Kirk and sharply performed in an intimate space. Designer David Shields creates the atmosphere of a prison, with brutal concrete areas that force the characters to toe the line. This immediately establishes a grave tone, lightened in the early scenes with witty asides. After the interval, there's no more levity, and the emotional kicks get increasingly forceful. This is a seriously haunting play that not only highlights the injustice of any tyrannical regime but also tenderly portrays the honest humanity of young people who are just beginning understand that their rulers are oppressors. For these boys it's natural to dream of a bigger world, to yearn for freedom and to find a soulmate in an unexpected place.

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