Oval House Theatre

Tarrick Benham as Kais and Serena Manteghi as Leili Credit: Zendeh
Serena Manteghi as Leili, Tarrick Benham as Kais and Matt Jamie as Arthur Credit: Zendeh
Serena Manteghi as Leili Credit: Zendeh

This is the story of Leili, Kais the mad poet with whom she falls in love and Arthur, the man that she marries.

A reference in Oval House’s season brochure, though there is no obvious reference in the play or the programme, gives its inspiration as an ancient Arabic love story, of a poet made mad by his love for Leili (or Leyla) when she is made to marry someone else. Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi made one famous version in the twelfth century and others have followed including an album of songs by Eric Clapton. Could the ghazal-like song with which the play opens also be about them?

Zendeh’s mad poet Kais (Tarrick Benham) is a Syrian refugee waiter with a genuine mental disorder for which he must take medication. He becomes obsessed with Leili (Serena Manteghi) because she is a regular customer at the Tehran café where he works. Kais is a communist, she a rich right-wing family’s daughter, but although her parents may be royalists but she calls herself a democrat.

Kais showers her with verse: even physically, though that may be metaphorical, scattering lines written out on pieces of paper like flower petals. They voice their mutual attraction in a verse about tongue kissing that proposes penetration.

Leili’s passionate rebellion against bourgeois behaviour is set against the political tensions of the early 1950s with a BBC newsreader imparting snatches of updating information. It is a short cut to feed facts that doesn’t simulate real broadcasts and gives little idea of what is happening in Tehran but it hammers home how British and American oil interests have led to interference and upheaval ever since oil was discovered in the Middle East.

In 1951, Persian premier Mosaddegh, as well as attempting to limit the near-absolute power of the Shah, provoked the outrage of Britain and America when, with almost unanimous parliamentary approval, he nationalised the Persian oil industry, previously controlled by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now BP). As Leili says, the UK government had recently nationalised coal and steel, so you might have expected them to approve.

Leili’s parents, discovering her liaison, pack her off to continue her studies in England where they have a connection in Durham, academic and journalist Arthur. Arthur (Matt Jamie) woos Leili and, knowing marriage to Kais will never be permitted, she marries him and with him returns to Tehran where he appears to have been sent as a journalist but is in fact working for British interests.

Thus Leili’s story and the political context are brought together but Arthur’s covert activities are not explained, nor is the reason for him not consummating their marriage, though there is a late reference to a wound suffered during the retreat at Dunkirk. Leili now re-encounters her old love and gives herself to him.

As a British and CIA fuelled coup against Mosaddegh explodes into violence, Arthur, who has tape-recorded the lovers' assignations, attacks Kais.

There seems an intention to align the left-orientated lovers with the progressive Iranians and Arthur is clearly part of the subversive western plot, but, while the love story is decorated with poetic theatricality and near dance choreography, the political argument is undeveloped making an uneasy and rather pointless parallel.

If this is a meant as a metaphor for the way the West has wrecked lives in the Middle East, it needs sharpening. Fortunately, its performers and director Nazli Tabatabai-Khatambakhsh’s often imaginative theatricality sustain immediate interest but the fluttering of red petals as a symbol of love or their eruption as a gushing of blood get more attention in this production that the hard facts of history.

Leili suggests more than once that the pomegranate is a better image of the heart than the conventional romantic symbol and I couldn’t help thinking that grenades get their name from the pomegranate. The fruits of Leila’s love may be explosive but we see nothing of Kais’s political passion. If he stands for those overthrown by the West, is Heart saying simply that the West were assassins?

The play is credited simply to the company and the lack of a clear voice my be the result of being a devised work, but a writer and a dramaturg are also listed. It is a pity they did not encourage their colleagues to invest more effort in the political story, or alternatively to concentrate on the love story and its traumas. As it is, both seem underdeveloped.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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