A staged adaptation of Marina Nemat's acclaimed memoir Prisoner of Tehran just can't do justice to the story.
In rare cases, a piece of non-fiction can be more dramatic than an invented story. When Marina Nemat published her memoir, Prisoner of Tehran, in 2007, Canada discovered one such work.
Nemat’s life story has become an international bestseller, and has established her as a voice for countless victims of the Iranian Revolution. It’s a tale that’s so terrifying, so sad, and so inspiring that it practically cries out to be adapted for the stage, to the extent that director and playwright Maja Ardal has now put it on Theatre Passe Muraille’s—though there were some understandable fumbles in the transition between the two mediums.
In Ardal’s adaptation, Nemat’s life of imprisonment is bookended by her periods of freedom. We see her as a young girl eating ice cream by the Caspian Sea with her grandmother, dancing with friends, and meeting her first love. The play ends with her working at a Swiss Chalet in Toronto. In between, we jump back and forth through two traumatic years spent in the infamous Evin Prison, where Nemat was held for alleged anti-revolutionary acts. We see scenes from her loveless marriage to Ali, a former guard at Evin, who saved her life. We watch her abandon her religion, as well as family members who refuse to acknowledge her ordeal. Bahareh Yaraghi plays Nemat, while Razi Shawadeh and Mirian Katrib cover the many other characters.
The details of Nemat’s story are too numerous to tackle in a simple plot description, so that’s where we’ll leave it. Suffice it to say that Ardal makes a valiant effort to capture the people, events, and complexities of the Iranian Revolution and the conflicts that arose from it. But much like the way a film version of a beloved book hardly ever does the original story justice, the impact of the staged Prisoner of Tehran doesn’t pack quite the blow that it should.
Shawadeh and Katrib work hard to manage a variety of characters—from the sweet to the sinister—but the pace of the action is so quick that their appearances feel shallow, like mere snippets. Especially in the character of Ali, who must feel as conflicted about the marriage as his adored-yet-unhappy wife, there are deep layers that seem impossible to reveal within the constraints of a play with a limited running time. This lack of dimension and Shawadeh and Katrib’s sometimes over-the-top performances have a tendency to make things seem cartoonish.
Julia Tribe’s set and costumes and Steven Hawkins’ lighting are simple and straightforward, much like Ardal’s direction. On the one hand, this lets the story speak for itself. On the other hand, it places a little too much responsibility on the script and performances to convey both story and context. Perhaps a more conceptual design would have filled in where character development falls short.
It’s a great thing to take such an important story from one medium to another, exposing it to a new audience and giving it new life. But with all due respect to the original text, a play is not a book. A theatre adaptation should take advantage of the stage’s unique elements and techniques to tell a story in a new way.
Theatre can, and does, handle stories like Nemat’s—but only when it’s used to its full potential.