Citizen at The Space explores what it is to be Iranian in 2018

Citizen explores what it is to be an Iranian in 2018. In terms of genre it’s refreshingly hard to pin down, so rather than impose a label, I’ll tell you what it really is: an intimate series of conversations about identity, home and the ruthlessness of displacement which shines with something rarely seen in UK theatre: authenticity. Lead by the skilled hand of writer, director and child of Iranian refugees Sepy Baghaei, ‘citizen’ guides us through a series of different perspectives on Iranian identity. These perspectives include memories shared by people Baghaei interviewed (including members of her own family) excerpts from Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe (who’s been imprisoned in Iran since 2016) letters home, diary entries from Behrouz Boochani which detail his life in detention on Manus Island, and insights from Iranian Americans following Trump’s Muslim ban.

The play opens with the cast regurgitating speeches by British and Australian politicians including Boris Johnson which highlight how ludicrous it is that we hear more about Iranian refugees from powerful rich white men than from the people themselves. It’s a difficult and infuriating listen because there’s no getting away from the fact these politicians aren’t a thing of fiction but a visceral and frightening reality. Even though I breathe a sigh of relief as soon as this section is over, I know that that opening will have been an important glimmer of context for those in the room who know less about Iranian history. It raises an interesting question about how theatre can be used as a means of educating people and that's clearly something Baghaei is interested in.

That said, this is absolutely not a history lesson type of show but rather an emotional and empathetic journey which pushes the audience all the way into their feelings to the beat of delicate, moving songs sung in Farsi, Hebrew and Turkish. The cast are natural storytellers who are so candid in their portrayal that we’re frequently left wondering if what they’re saying is autobiographical. Their ability to own the content is wonderful to watch, and double-underlines how much better this kind of theatre is when it’s cast authentically. Some of the situations depicted are extremely harrowing — and rightly so — but rather than dump us, bereft, in the heart of these gutting stories, the company never let go of our hand. Instead, they guide us deeper and deeper into the heart of the ‘citizen.’ It’s a really generous approach, and speaks to the openness and hospitality of Middle Eastern people generally. Again, the gift of authenticity just keeps giving. 

It follows, therefore, that there is humour too, lots of it. It comes mostly in the form of cutting parody, but there’s also fond banter about the simple things in life - at one point we’re literally given tea. For me - a Turkish woman -  the bittersweet blackness of it is familiar, comforting and everydayish. To feel at home in the theatre is incredibly rare but for a flash I have the upper hand on the white British audience because it’s my people being represented, not theirs - this quiet moment of liberation is a hundred discussions on why representation matters made manifest in one silent sip of tea. 

What an achievement. Baghaei’s commitment to representation marks her several cuts above other practitioners who are happy to bish bash bosh a play about the Middle East and cast the first person who comes along with dark brown hair. Though parts of Citizen feel unfinished and somewhat limited by the venue it’s clear there’s more to come and that an evolution is in process. Baghaei is an artist with genuine integrity and I will watch on keenly as she goes from strength to strength.

Catch Citizen at The Space until the 5th of May. Grab tickets here