by Ramya Jaidev
Isfahan Calling: the Old Red Lion Theatre in Angel, London at 7:30 pm daily until 14 March 09.
Isfahan Calling is set some time in the recent past, in the middle of an coalition forces military campaign against Iranian militia, which is as potentially devastating as its outcome is indeterminate. That indeterminacy leads into an examination of the role of propaganda and other forms of psychological manipulation as strategic measures- a tactic that the U.S Department of Defense calls ‘PSYWAR’. I don’t just mention this in order
to show off; furiously spitting “PSYWAR!” through gritted teeth between deep lungfuls of hysteria-inducing oxygen actually does evoke this play at its most manic moments.
That is not meant as a criticism.
S12 is a fictional British info-ops team who broadcast deceptive propaganda to Iranian militia over the radio. Zahra (Zahra Ahmadi) is the latest addition to the team, hand-picked and fast-tracked it seems, because of her Persian heritage: her parents were forced out of Iran during the Islamic revolutions. Her manager is Roy (Paul McEwan), a larger-than-life, scenery-chewing sort who runs the operation and is principally responsible for the mania mentioned above. The cast is rounded out by the other team members, the most memorable being Lee (Matthew Ashforde). That is not a slight on them- they exist to provide the nuts and bolts, to nudge the narrative along towards the riveting, explosive climax and the unwarranted, emotionally manipulative ending that occurs about twenty minutes later.
It is structured as a thriller, and to give the climax away would do both Philip De Gouveia’s writing and Paul McEwan’s performance a disservice. Neither is restrained, but that would be nitpicking, and denying them the credit would rob the production of its greatest asset- its unbridled energy. De Gouveia is a political analyst by day, and there are instances when the script reflects the crazed, comic-book dynamism of being given free rein to fictionalize in realms that, on a normal working day, mainly involve phone-calls and paperwork. I can’t really comment as to its accuracy, but his writing is interesting. The only real problem is the ending, which is forced, manipulative and thoroughly unnecessary. The points that De Gouveia wants to make - about the potential for abuse of power in psychological warfare, the possibility of megalomania, the ethics of this sort of operation, and whether there is a necessary disjunction between being a good citizen and being a good human — have all been made. And yet the play carries on.
Ahmadi and McEwan make the best of the clumsy ending, but there is plenty for them to work with elsewhere. Their broadcasts are a particular highlight- the lilting, inflected tones of Miss Layla (the character Zahra plays in her propaganda broadcasts) were both charming and unnerving, while Roy’s hijacking of the Iranian leader’s broadcast (and the lead-up to it) was compelling.
The direction (Kelly Wilkinson) is a little more problematic- there are a few scenes that drag, patches of dialogue that should sound better than they do, and a distracting and repetitive visual gimmick that is entirely out of place in a play of this sort. The cluttered set adds a sense of claustrophobia to the play, which works well in the intimate space. Sound and lighting were good, although I did nearly choke on the theatrical haze at one point.
This is an odd time to see a play about an Iranian propaganda war- President Obama’s attitude towards Iran generally representing a thaw in relations between Middle East and West- which is unfortunate for the playwright and production team. Had it been staged a year or two ago, it would have had a much greater sense of urgency, which political productions, more than any other kind, really benefit from. As my foreign policy days are behind me, I can only suggest that you see this play - it was an enjoyable and informative experience, despite some of its flaws.