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A passion for the political power of art

The Irish Times


Theatre director, poet and playwright Kazem Shahryari may have adopted Paris as his home, but he draws on his native Iran - and Dermot Bolger’s Ireland - in his work, he tells Lara Marlowe.

It is the last day of Kazem Shahryari’s triumphant Paris production of Dermot Bolger’s The Passion of Jerome. In the foyer of his Art Studio Theatre, in the working-class, immigrant neighbourhood of Belleville, Shahryari brews tea in a samovar and talks in exuberant disorder of his "extraordinary love story" with Bolger’s work, the death of his closest friend the previous day, French ethnocentricity, the struggle for theatre funding, politics, poetry and exile.

The translator, Emile-Jean Dumay, an expert on Irish theatre, introduced Shahryari to Bolger’s The Lament for Arthur Cleary two years ago. "I told Dumay, ’This writer has something that speaks to me. I live surrounded by dead people. He and I have similar minds’." Shahryari obtained the French rights to the work for the "Théâtre des 5 continents" series, which he edits for L’Harmattan publishers. He then published The Passion of Jerome, which he brought to the French stage as Prodige ("marvel" or "wonder") over the past two months. With very little advertising but excellent reviews, the tale of 40-year-old Jerome Furlong’s infidelity, metaphysical crisis, guilt and resurrection filled the 50-seat theatre every night. "Miraculous !", said Le Figaro.

Dermot Bolger was previously unknown in France, the critic Jean-Luc Jeener noted, "But he is nonetheless a great playwright. A revelation like there are few in a theatrical season . . . It is a story of redemption. Simple, powerful, without hackneyed words, superfluous explanations or moralising. The sheer realisation that grace and extraordinary things do exist . . ."

In the paly, Jerome, a successful Dublin advertising executive, has sex with his young mistress Clara in a haunted apartment in the slums of Ballymun. The audience is never sure whether the nail holes in Jerome’s hands are self-inflicted, because of the drugs he does with Clara, or by the ghost of the 15-year-old boy who hung himself in the flat. A cleaning lady from Ballymun wants to believe that Jerome can save her daughter Jacinta, who is dying of a lung disease. But Jerome’s physical and mental torment are rooted in the death seven years earlier of his own infant daughter Felicity, and the grief that has alienated him from his Protestant wife Penny.

By an eerie concidence, Shahryari’s best friend, an Iranian biologist named Houshang Behzadi, died the day before we met, of a lung disease - like Jacinta and Felicity in the play. Shahyari shrugs ; everything is connected, he says. He is organising a poetry reading, music and dancing to follow Behzadi’s cremation at Père Lachaise.

The Passion of Jerome played at the Peacock Theatre in Dublin, in 1999, to mixed reviews. "Many of the critics came from the same middleclass as the character Jerome," Dermot Bolger told the review Etudes Irlandaises. "Jerome has reinvented himself . . . as Ireland just did in record time . . . I wanted to study this middleclass that came out of the bogs in only two generations, and explore the possible intrusion, in their modern, agnostic lives, of this God their grandmothers believed in."

When Shahryari published the play, he recommended it to five French theatre directors who rejected it as "too Catholic". Shahryari is virulently secular - "I can’t stand God", he says - but he did not find the play religious. "Iran and Ireland share a poetic, mystical character. When a French person reads a poem by Synge or a play by Bolger, he doesn’t understand." Shahryari is planning a French-language production of Bolger’s Bright April next November.

Dumay, the translator, told Shahryari that Bolger had decided not to write anymore for the theatre. "I made a bet," the Iranian director says. "I said, ’I’m going to direct two Bolger plays, and publish all his plays in French, on condition that he comes to France. I thought I could change his mind." Bolger attended Shahryari’s production of Jerome on May 11th. Although the Iranian brought his own minimalist style to it, Bolger was delighted. "He said my version was exactly as he’d imagined it," Shahryari says. "And I won my bet - he will write another play and dedicate it to me." Although Shahryari speaks poor English and Bolger does not speak French, the Irish writer spent three days with Shahryari, his Belgian wife and their two children. They communicate by e-mail almost daily.

"Often in my novels or in my theatre, people’s lives have stopped or been swallowed up," Bolger told Etudes Irlandaises. "The play builds towards the moment where life recommences for the characters."

It is the miracle of new beginnings - as much as the presence of the dead - that links Bolger and Shahryari. "I don’t think an Iranian can be happy without the idea of eternal rebirth," Shahryari says. "It’s in our culture ; so is incredible sadness." Shahryari was born in Iranian Kurdistan in 1955. He says he died 20 years ago in Tehran, that his frenetic artistic life in Paris is a second existence.

AT the age of 16, he became a political activist by accident, after writing a poem to the dead poet Farough Faroukhzad in which the Shah’s secret police thought they saw subversive intentions. From his first arrest and interrogation, every play directed by Shahryari landed him in jail, including Sean O’Casey’s Shadow of a Gunman, in which the SAVAK detected parallels with Iran. "I wrote an Irish ballad," Shahyari laughs, and he begins singing in Persian, "Three rebels hang from the gallows and their blood sings, ’Long live free Ireland, in the heart of mankind . . .’" He fared no better under Ayatollah Khomeini ; the mullahs correctly assumed his production of a Bertolt Brecht play about a mad emperor who divides the world into round and pointy-headed people was a criticism of their regime. The Tehran opera house overflowed with people trying to see it, which sparked street battles. "You must never, never, give in to religious people ; you have to remain secular," Shahryari muses.

After four years living underground, distributing the songs he wrote in mail boxes at night, Shahryari ended up in Evin prison. He survived torture, beatings and mock executions to escape and make his way to Paris. His hair had fallen out, and he was coughing and urinating blood. French doctors said his internal organs were haemorrhaging and that he would live at most 18 months. Several of his friends in exile, including the film-maker Kasra Rezaii, committed suicide - a fate that nearly befell Shahyari.

As head of the writers’ group PEN, the American playwright Arthur Miller put Shahryari in touch with a Greek director, Andreas Voutssinas, who gave him work in his theatre. After three years in Paris, Shahryari’s hair grew back and his white blood cells began reproducing. Like a miracle, like a Dermot Bolger play.

Since 1987, Shahyari has written only in French. His fourth collection of poetry won first prize at a French-language festival in Romania. He still believes that art is the most effective form of politics. In 1996 he wrote a manifesto against xenophobia demanding the integration of foreigners into French cultural life. He presented it to the French culture minister, signed by 4,000 people. In one of his plays, an Algerian immigrant marries Marianne, the symbol of France. The immigrant is arrested and in a violent, blood-filled scene, Marianne gives birth to their stillborn child.

Shahyari says his goal as a writer and director is to make people think. He says he feels French now, and has no desire to return to Iran. Geography is immaterial. "The only thing I could miss would be the opportunity to create," he says. "Where there is no creation, I would die."

The Irish Times