In the months after Iran agreed a landmark nuclear deal with western powers, theatre director Mostafa Kooshki and others set up the Mostaghel theatre in central Tehran, amid growing hopes that the broader political rapprochement and a more relaxed approach by the authorities would help the Islamic republic’s arts scene flourish.
But more than three years later, and despite the huge success of productions such as Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Mostaghel theatre is now at risk of closure. “We feel under so much pressure that we considered closure some months ago,” said Mr Kooshki, 34. “After fulfilling our commitments to host two big plays by March, we shall see if any window of hope will open or not.”
The US decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal and the reimposition of sanctions has hit the economy hard. Oil exports, the country’s lifeline, have plunged. Iran’s rial fell by almost fifty per cent last year, pushing up the price of basic goods. At its peak, there were 148 performances every day at Tehran’s 33 theatres, of which about 20 are privately run and opened in recent years. While Mr Kooshki recalls sellout performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with people willing to pay to sit on the floor, theatre producers now talk of performances where there are more actors than people in the stalls.
This has coincided with a renewed crackdown on artists and theatres in general. In late December, the 700-seat Shahrzad theatre had to shut after its licence was revoked. At the time of closure, it had eight plays running. In the same month, the authorities stopped production of a Shakespeare adaptation as well as the Iranian adaptation of Mexican play Like Water for Chocolate. Theatre impresarios more broadly report increased monitoring by security forces of their productions.
For young educated Iranians, unable to go to bars or nightclubs because alcohol consumption and dancing in public are banned, the theatrical boom provided a much-needed release. The fact that many theatres are now threatened with closure only adds to a pervading sense of gloom.
“The decline in the number of theatre and cinema goers is both related to economic pressure as well as a sense of despair in society,” said a professor of cinema at a university in Tehran. “Even cinema students do not seriously follow or take part in events on art movies and documentaries.”
While productions such as the Victor Hugo classic Les Misérables and Spanish drama The House of Bernarda Alba still sell well, they are unusual. “Theatre in general is going down both in quality and quantity,” added Mr Kooshki. “The economic hardships do not let artists share thoughts like [they did] two years ago and be creative.”
Iran’s theatres put on a wide variety of plays, including an Iranian adaptation of the American dramatist Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. “Culture has no borders,” Ayoub Aghakhani, the director of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, said of his choice of play, adding that he thought “it is time to stage the play [regardless of its American affiliation] because we are surrounded by lies”.
Actresses also adopted a creative approach to getting around the official restrictions on their performances. In order to circumvent rules on obligatory head coverings, they wore hair pieces. Despite an official ban, they sometimes sang solo and even danced on stage. But those days now appear to be over. Maryam Kazemi, a theatre director, was arrested in September after her trailer for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, featured men and women dancing.
At a time when Iranian leaders say they are in an “economic war” with the US, there is no money to spare to support the arts. Shahram Karami, head of the Dramatic Art Centre affiliated to the culture ministry, said that theatres have had to put on more commercial productions. “Our financial restrictions do not let us support the theatre as much as we should,” added Mr Karami. “We need to think of solutions as the theatre cannot automatically save itself.”
Iranian theatre, which flourished in the years before the 1979 cultural revolution, can still thrive, one director said. “Iran has experienced numerous crises like war and sanctions after the Islamic revolution . . . but theatre could adapt . . . and survived during these historical crises,” said the director, who did not want to be named. “The economic situation is relatively bad and people are under pressure. I believe cultural activities like theatre would give motivation and desire to people. It is an asset that can help people remain more hopeful.”