The Iranian stage adaptation of 'Les Miserables' and its cultural barricades

Published 26.01.2019 00:09

Cultural experiences, be it attending performing arts exhibitions or visiting art galleries, are regarded as some of the most important social activities for Iranian people. The existence of a considerable number of state- and privately-owned theaters and many art galleries are explicit indicators of this demand. Even the political ebb and flow and the ongoing economic crises do not impede the relationship of the public with art. The capital of Iran, Tehran, has been hosting the famous, award-winning musical "Les Misérables," dramatized from the book by French novelist Victor Hugo. "Les Misérables" has been shown in more than 40 countries to date and has been gracing the stage of the Royal Hall of Espinas Palace Hotel in Tehran since Nov. 11, 2018, with an end run at the end of January 2019.

The Iranian adaptation is directed by Hossein Parsaei, who also directed the musical "Oliver Twist" based on the novel by Charles Dickens, last year. What makes this musical remarkable is that it brings the most famous Iranian actors and actresses, namely Parsa Piroozfar, Navid Mohammadzadeh, Sahar Dolatshahi, Parinaz Izadyar, Askhan Khatibi, Saber Abar, and Hootan Shakiba, together on one stage. In addition to this leading cast, 300 artists are involved as well. When adding the members of the orchestra, conducted by Bardia Kiaras, and his crew, the number of people who are taking part in the musical reaches over 450.

Despite their best efforts, this stage adaptation of "Les Misérables" falls short on a few logistical issues. While having a grand atmosphere, the Royal Hall may not offer the best musical theater experience for many, as the auditorium is quite big and suffers from poor acoustics, greatly diminishing the experience of guests seated in the rear rows. Secondly, the audience cannot recognize the actors and actresses causing them to sometimes have difficulty following the performance, something that could have easily been solved by the addition of a dedicated live camera feed to large monitors near the top of the stage.

Lastly, the libretto lacks an effective translation, leveling down the performance of the ensemble cast, and some musical numbers lead to confusion for the general audience. The depth and power of Farsi have alleviated this issue to some extent, and it is important to highlight the fact that despite these shortcomings, the cast and orchestra interact harmoniously.

It is important to consider the redlines Parsaei wrangled with and highlight it as perhaps one of the greatest achievements of this stage production of "Les Misérables." Stage performances and movies are strictly reviewed and then approved or rejected by the Performing Arts Department of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. The approval of this production by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has cemented Parsaei's "Les Misérables" as one of the most important stage performances since the Islamic Revolution. The themes of the musical – justice and politics – have astonished the audience due to the strict control of the Islamic republic's government, and there are some noticeable differences in this stage adaptation.

The existing taboos on the audiences

Mainly, the actresses cannot show their natural hair at any time during the performance, causing them to wear wigs throughout the show. Second, female solos are not allowed to be performed, meaning Fantine's "I Dreamed a Dream" and Éponine's "On My Own," arguably the best-known songs of the musical, to be absent from the playbill. These small details veil the important parts of the musical, which mostly explains the government's unquestioning standing. Although many of the rules have been followed during the production of the musical, many parts, such as the mixed dance numbers, have surprised audiences due to the existing taboos in Iran.

Notwithstanding, Hossein Parsaei's "Les Misérables" has braved many societal and political barricades, raising the expectations of the Iranian audience to experience internationally known performances.

It is important to stress that the allowance of "Les Misérables," which contains controversial issues such as revolting against an absolute authority, was surprising. Therefore, questions have been raised whether the certifying authority could decrease the "taboos" of Iran and permit other Western stage performances. The underlying reasons of this argument are the ongoing economic crises in the country, which have caused a significant decrease in the purchasing power of Iranian people. Highlighting this economic disparity, the ticket prices for "Les Misérables" were a hotly contested issue. To see the show, one would have to spend a record high amount, between 550,000 and 1.85 million Iranian rials (approximately $5 and $18 respectively), a potentially unrealistic cost for lower-income groups, preventing them from seeing the musical.

This situation ironically raises the questions: Is this "Les Misérables" being performed for the bourgeoisie? Or, if the theater is such a popular art form in Iran, why are the economic realities of the ordinary people not being taken into account? Based on my observations, "Les Misérables" has been seen by scores of people who might not consider themselves to be followers of the performing arts but have gone to see the musical due to its popularity. It is as if ordinary theatergoers are mostly excluded from this musical.

The political conditions of Iran

Currently, present-day France and other European countries are dealing with the "yellow vest" movements, and this musical is being presented to Iranian audiences. It is easy to draw parallels between the political and economic conditions of Iran and the early 1800s France of "Les Misérables," as the social unrest and the increasing economic inequality could easily be observed in today's Iran. In this atmosphere, the ongoing protests in Europe and the themes of the musical have been labelled a "perfect match." These problems have also led the ideology clash between Generations X, Y and partially Z. While Generation X embraces the roots of the Islamic Revolution and defends it under all circumstances, the younger generations are suffering from the social pressure and the lack of opportunities in the country. Seeing the musical could spark a brief, introspective analysis of Iran's political, economic and cultural problems both for insiders and outsiders.

Likewise, the cultural and social differences in this musical could help analyze Iran's ongoing problems if the musical is handled from different viewpoints. It could be regarded as an absolute step to get familiar with westernization in terms of stage performances.

However, it is an even more meaningful step of supporting freedom of expression and a means by which the audience can examine political, economic, social and cultural problems critically. Without this self-reflection, theaters would simply continue to host many well-known stage performances without learning any lessons from them. Yet, the economic conditions of the country do not guarantee access for all social classes for this kind of performance, which is the strongest criticism for this musical. Notwithstanding, it is important to recognize that these kinds of stage performances could close the cultural gap and promote relations between the West and Iran.

* Ph.D. candidate in politics at the University of Exeter

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