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Isfahan Calling

Philip de Gouveia
IsoProductions
Old Red Lion Theatre
(2009)

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In David Mamet's film Wag The Dog, a crack team of spin doctors aim to distract the public from the US president's recent sexual indiscretion by conjuring up an entirely phoney war with Albania. Footage of children fleeing burning villages torched by the Albanian aggressors is CGI-ed into existence. Songs are sung, tears are shed, a "prisoner of war" becomes a national hero. This new play by Philip de Gouveia stands up well to comparison with that wicked satire. It reminds us that though propaganda may seem an outdated concept today (conjuring up images of lurid WWII posters and extravagant scaremongering news stories), the same principles may still be used in modern warfare.

In a remote spot near the Iranian border, a British military base is sending covert radio broadcasts of disinformation and demoralising sentiment to the citizens of Tehran. The team are mostly civilian journalists, researchers and technicians. One of the brilliant cuts of the play is having them talk breezily about picturing their core demographic; working virally through text and email campaigns; tapping into the public sensibility - this all sounds scarily plausible. In a world so media-dominated and marketing-obsessed, it seems only natural that the same techniques should be being wielded to "win hearts and minds" in a war effort. The assumption though that people's deepest convictions - their patriotic loyalty for instance - are there for the manipulation, eventually backfires gruesomely.

All the teams thrusts are aimed at the weakest points of the heart. An "Iranian housewife" reminds soldiers on the front of their home life during peacetime, to make them yearn for the end of the hostilities. (To this end she also teaches them phonetically the English phrases they will need to surrender - from "I give up" to "God save the queen".) A "loyal Iranian citizen" constantly asserts his allegiance to the government - but gradually expresses reluctant doubts about their motivations. It is subtle enough that you actually can imagine it slipping under people's guard.

But the team are not broad caricatures in the way that Mamet intends his characters to be. The centrepoint is Zahra, the twenty-five year old new recruit whose parents were driven out of Iran to London in the revolution of the late 70s. She has a somewhat romantic feeling for her land of origin, a desire to see it "liberated" but most of all to see the government pay for her parents' suffering. Another with a personal motivation is Ali, the gentle, middle-aged Iranian political exile with whom Zahra forms an instant bond. Then there's Rosie, detached and ambitious information-gatherer, who speaks matter-of-factly about news gained through interrogation, Lee, the straightforwardly blokey civilian techie, and Roy, fanatical head of the operation, a former journalist on a seemingly personal crusade against the Iranian regime.

The fine ensemble acting allows many thoughtful points to arise without being overplayed. Ali and Zahra share a genuine and uncynical hope for the happiness of the Iranian people, whereas Roy and Lee see them as little more than "suckers". Ali calls Zahra both a Persian princess and a "clever mongrel" in reference to her London upbringing. For him she perhaps embodies modern Iran; a country he talks of longingly, its "mountains and plains, snow-fed rivers, wildflowers". He in fact calls it Persia - a name that might be thought of as outdated, politically incorrect even, but which he has chosen to reclaim, we may imagine, to emphasise the region's grand classical history. Lee meanwhile (beautifully played by Matthew Ashforde) keeps his sanity only by a constant supply of Coke, football and porn. He's not a football hooligan, or an idiot, but a regular bloke from Tooting uninterested in political subtleties and eager for a good old British victory. It's implied that Roy (a magnetic Paul McEwan) approves of this attitude much more than of Ali and Zahra actually sympathising with their listeners. He is almost maniacal in his desire to topple the regime, but we are left to speculate why - to right past injustices he witnessed as a journalist; or simply to enforce Western supremacy? De Gouveia's decision not to tell us is a respectable one, I think - by not giving Roy an emotive backstory he discourages us from excusing him for his present actions; essentially he refuses to propagandise on Roy's behalf.

It is Roy's decision to spread misinformation about Iran's nuclear capability that ignites an unforeseen chain of events. Across the border a rival Iranian pirate radio station picks up on the propaganda and urges the Iranian people to be proud of their country's military strength, not horrified as the Brits had intended. It is tricky water, to speculate about Iranian civilians' feelings about nuclear power; but the play's theme is much more to do with their feelings at being emotionally manipulated by the enemy. Well directed by Kelly Wilkinson and with a beautifully naturalistic set depicting the cramped office that is the only setting, the play gets us into the heart of the insular, shuttered attitudes which are perhaps requisite for all propagandists. This is an astute, subtle and timely piece of work.

Until 14th March

Reviewer: Corinne Salisbury