A Berlin threatre's own Iran drama

( dpa ) - The Berlin Theater ensemble was supposed to contribute to cultural ties between Iran and Germany by performing Bertolt Brecht's "Mother Courage" in the annual arts festival in Tehran.

However, the project faced unprecedented problems ranging from sniffer dogs to confiscated blank cartridge rifles and pistols and eventually the need to change one part of the famous anti-war drama.

"I saw things I had never seen before (in my career)," said Claus Peymann, director of the Berlin Theater ensemble about the play.

Peymann said that he faced harsh criticism from Iranian dissidents back home in Germany for his decision to play to Iran.

"But I came here not for playing for the Iranian president (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) or the government but for Iranian theatre fans, just as I do not play in Berlin for German Chancellor (Angela) Merkel or Berlin mayor (Klaus) Wowereit," the director said.

"Art speaks another language and can open new little windows," he added.

Peymann however almost regretted his decision after he faced in Tehran "exaggerated harsh controls," such as blackening the pictures of women in the theatre brochure, checking the text and arguing over the dress code of the actresses.

In Iran all women, including foreigners, have to wear a headscarf and gown to hide hair and body contour and the actresses of the Berlin ensemble were no exception.

According to Peymann, the local organizers, affiliated with the Iranian Culture Ministry, even "forcefully" prohibited German press and media from interviewing the actresses about their obligation to hide their hair.

"It was like a new Middle Ages. I felt like a fool," Peymann said.

The ensemble also had logistic problems which the director termed as "funny but still serious enough to endanger the first night performance (Tuesday) until the last minute."

The venue of the play was the Vahdat Hall in Tehran where also the equipment of the ensemble was stored, including two blank cartridge rifles and one pistol which were a must for the play.

During the weekend however, Ahmadinejad had to go to the same hall for awarding Iranian writers. Naturally the whole venue was thoroughly checked with newly-purchased sniffer dogs which eventually found the theatre weapons in the ensemble's box of requisites.

The weapons were immediately confiscated by the presidential security officers but returned after it was assured that they solely belonged to the theatre group and were not real weapons.

"But when we got back the weapons, the one pistol no longer worked," Peymann said.

As the daughter of Mother Courage, the deaf Katrin, should be killed in the play by a pistol, the rather important scene in the drama had for the first time be changed and Katrin was eventually killed by a rifle and not with a pistol.

Peymann said that during his first performance in Tehran in 2002 - William Shakespeare's "Richard II" - the situation in Iran had drastically deteriorated and he even toyed with the idea of returning to Berlin.

The Iranian side has not yet officially reacted to the harsh criticism by the German director but one Cultural Ministry official regretted the incident. But at the same time he accused the Germans with "overreacting."

"We are indeed very sorry about the inconvenience caused, but our German friends should know that they cannot expect in Iran the same conditions as in Germany and should therefore not overreact," the official said on condition of anonymity.

"If the aim was cultural exchange between two nations, then there should not be such a fuss over a pistol," he added.

The play itself was a great success and the Berlin ensemble, especially Peymann and leading actress Carmen-Maja Antoni, received standing ovations by the audience in the sold-out Vahdat Hall.

"Brecht and Peymann live in Tehran, that was indeed a highlight for all of us", Iranian theatre director Mohsen Hosseini said after the performance.

"That was really cool. The problem is only that after such a performance, we need to adapt ourselves again to the level of our own local theater," theater student Hossein said.

"This of course makes us proud," Peymann said, referring to the enthusiastic reaction by the audience.

Brecht is one of the most popular German writers in Iran and almost all of his dramas are translated into Farsi. Peymann is respected in Iranian theatre and academic circles as one of the greatest theater directors.

Performances by German or European artists in Iran are supposed to build a cultural bridge to the Islamic state.

During the 1997-2005 presidency of reformist Mohammad Khatami, such initiatives strengthened dialogue among civilizations and contact between Muslims and non-Muslims.

This aim was also supposed to be continued under the ultra- conservative Ahmadinejad whose controversial nuclear policies and anti-Israeli rhetoric since his presidency in August 2005 has caused world-wide controversy.

But theater fans in Iran do not care about such political considerations and whether such cultural bridges could eventually be built or not.

"We cannot care less about such issues. All we want is to see good theater and are just glad to have an excellent ensemble playing Brecht in Iran after almost nine years," said actress Layli Mashayekhi.

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