by Lynn on April 15, 2012

in The Passionate Playgoer

The following review was broadcast on Friday, April 13, 2012. CIUT FRIDAY MORNING 89.5 FM: .PRISONER OF TEHRAN

The Host was Rose Palmieri.


1) Good Friday morning. Besides interviewing Matthew Jocelyn, Artistic Director of Canadian Stage earlier, Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and passionate playgoer is here with a review, as she is every week. What are you talking about this week Lynn?


Hi Rose. I’m talking about PRISONER OF TEHRAN. It’s based on the book of the same name written by Marina Nemet. It was adapted and directed by Maja Ardal, who we interviewed last week on the show.


2) It’s a harrowing story as I recall. Please give us the details.


It’s produced by Contrary Theatre Company in association with Theatre Passe Muraille. In her memoir Marina Nemat details how at 16 she was arrested because of her protests against the Iranian government, thrown into the dreaded Evin Prison and tortured so that she would give them names of her like-minded friends.

Nemat never broke, which was interesting because a good friend of hers did give up Marina’s name when the friend was tortured. Nemet was sentenced to death but was saved by an unlikely person—her interrogator Ali. He had fallen in love with her and offered to save her if she married him and converted to Islam. She eventually agreed. That was not the end of her troubles.

It is an incredible story of heroism, bravery, tenacity and selflessness.


3) Does it transfer well to the stage?


Maja Ardal is both the adaptor and director of the play. Her commitment to the work is obvious. Her intention to be true to the book is noble. But there are problems. I don’t think the transition from page to stage is as smooth as it might be. The resulting production is less than a success because for one thing, in a way, it holds back and let’s us off the hook.


4) What do you mean the transition isn’t as smooth from page to stage. Give us details.


The book goes back and forth in time, and Maja Ardal has been true to that structure in her adaptation. That might be fine for the book but for a play it chops up the momentum for when Marina is suddenly picked up and thrown into prison when she’s 16. And at times it is confusing in knowing what time we are in—the present or the past. And because many details are left out it’s hard to get a handle on characters.

Marina’s mother for example—her daughter disappears and yet I don’t get the sense of the angst or concern from her mother when her daughter is gone for such a long time. That aspect is a little fuzzy.


5) Does the production make up for any lapse? We know that Marina Nemet was tortured in prison. Is that a factor to grab the audience into the play?


I don’t think Maja Ardal as director could shy away from that. But neither does she go overboard showing us what Marina went through.
In one scene Marina is held on a bench by Ali. Her legs are stretched out. Her feet are bare—she takes off her shoes and places them in a pile of other shoes—terrific image there. Then an unseen man whacks at her feet with a cord several times as Marina writhes in pain. All we need is that one scene to represent the torture. Any more and we would turn off. You don’t want your audience to turn off.

But I find the resulting production to be less than a success because in a way it holds back and let’s us off the hook. While Marina yells in pain and grimaces with each strike, I find that the suggestion of pain in Bahareh Yaraghi’s performance as Marina, does not escalate and get more and more intense. I think it’s the actress doing what her director wants.

There is nothing wrong with making an audience squirm and suggest what that character went through, but to deny us that sense of participating, of feeling the pain, robs the production too.

We are told that Evin Prison was a hell hole of a place—horrible, harrowing. Yet when Marina comes to the prison she sees one of her dear friends, Sara, and they greet each other and chatter away as if nothing has happened. They seemed so buoyant in their chatter, catching up that it seemed like giggly girls at summer camp. I had to remind myself that this was prison.

Sara was tortured and in fact gave up Marina’s name, but there was none of that guilt in Mirian Katrib’s performance until she admits later in that speech that she gave up Marina’s name. Now that makes no sense—to have no sign of consuming guilt while talking to the friend you ratted on, until you get to a line that says you feel guilty.

Perhaps it’s an inexperienced actress—Katrib does not have a lot of acting experience. Perhaps it’s director Maja Ardal being careful.
I’m not sure, but it diminishes the impact of the play.


6) You said that the shoes are a terrific image. What do they mean?


On either side of the stage are pairs and pairs of neatly arranged shoes. I assume they are a metaphor for all the people who had to take off their shoes before they were tortured—starting with thrashing the soles of their feet with that stiff cord. There are several images that are wonderfully arresting in Maja Ardal’s production.

She knows how to position actors for dramatic effect. She is a very good director. I love that the set is almost bare except for the shoes and perhaps a bench. There are a lot of scene changes so less is best and she moves quickly and efficiently from one to the other without unnecessary fuss and clutter of props.

At the beginning of the play there is an intriguing image of three characters first in shadow then in hazy light, of two propping up the third. It can certainly represent what happens during the play.

And while Ardal always wants to be true to the source material, it gets confusing when one of the characters is speaking and we don’t quite make it out, first because the actor (Razi Shawahdeh in many male roles) doesn’t speak up and second it’s in another language.
Off the bat that baffles the audience if they can’t understand what’s being said—they turn off.

A tricky proposition.


7) Would you recommend it?


A difficult question.

This play will have resonance with a lot of people—lots of Iranians on opening night. It’s a story of guts and heroism and that’s not to be dismissed. Maja Ardal and her cast are honouring and paying respect to the story and Marina Nemet’s triumph.

So even though I think there are problems with the adaptation and production, I think this production is worth a look.


Thanks Lynn. That’s Lynn Slotkin, CIUT FRIDAY MORNING’S theatre critic and passionate playgoer. You can read Lynn’s blog at

PRISONER OF TEHRAN plays at Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace until April 28.


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