Mohammad Rahmanian: The Last Days of Esfand (Akhar-e-Roozhay-e-Esfand), performed by Ashkan Khatibi and Ghazal Shakeri with musicians at Vahdat Hall, Tehran, Iran, February and March, 2014.
Mohammad Rahmanian is an Iranian-Canadian playwright and director who moved to Vancouver, Canada a few years ago. In The Last Days of Esfand, Rahmanian focused on a real event in order to provide a mixture of theatre and music. Historically, his new play was related to a music group called The Yellow Dogs. It was a rock band established in 2006 in Tehran, Iran. Then, the members of this group moved to the U.S. in 2010, and settled in Brooklyn, New York as immigrants. They claimed that they could not continue their activity in Iran. They worked together for a while, and recorded and played albums. A former member (another Iranian musician) of the rock music group came to the members of The Yellow Dogs, and killed two members who were brothers (Arash and Soroosh Farazmand) and their friend, as well as killing himself using a gun. This act of violence took place on 11 November. 2013. This shocking event has been subject to wide and varying analyses. One of them is presented in Akhar-e-Roozhay-e-Esfand (The Last Days of Esfand).
There is a young man, Esfandyar (Ali-Akbar), who had a criminal record. He was arrested and put in the prison. Esfandyar is accompanied to the psychologist’s office. The psychologist, called Bahar Aref in the play, reviews his case and asks him some questions in order to understand the aim of his violent action. During her investigation and conversation, the young man Esfandyar describes his life, and how he has been involved in rock music, why he is interested in music, why his musician friends left Iran and so on. He shows two sides of his character. Esfandyar is aggressive and uncontrollable even though he is on medication for this. Because of joining a music group, he had left his high school. There are some songs during his statements. Both imaginarily and actually, he sings and sees the various songs which were released during the 1930s and 1970s. Imagine by John Lennon is the first song: “Imagine all the people living for today… it’s easy if you try.”
The performance-music, Akhar-e-Roozhay-e-Esfand (The Last Days of Esfand) is presented through ten Western songs by a professional music group with their live instruments. In fact, a pattern can be recognised for this play: There is a conversation between Bahar as a psychologist and Esfandyar (Ali-Akbar), a young man, as an accused person. Esfandyar illustrates his life and his favourite songs, and why he likes music and singers. Afterwards, the musical group takes over in front of the stage (coming up by lift in the orchestra from underground) to present a piece which is roughly related to the accused person’s description. When the song is finished, the previous conversation continues, only to be followed by the next song and so forth.
Recently this kind of combination of music and theatre can be seen in Mohammad Rahmanian’s experience; however, the number of music-performances or musical theatre performances is not all that usual in Iran. He does not claim to have a musical play. That is why he called his play ‘concert-theatre.’ The elements of musical theatre are recognizable in his show; however, they are not the same as the elements in formal musical theatre.
According to Rahmanian’s new mise-en-scène, this combination of music and theatre provides a nostalgic atmosphere for the audience. The root of this passion in mixing theatre and music can also be seen in his previous performances from eight years ago. He has usually paid attention to the Iranian intellectual spectators; however, in this instance, Rahmanian has focused on the Iranian audiences who belong to the upper and middle classes. In Akhar-e-Roozhay-e-Esfand (The Last Days of Esfand) he has changed his focus to attract vast number of people, because of limited subsidy. Because of his first-hand exposure to the practises of Canadian theatre companies, Rahmanian understood how and where the commercial theatre stands and exists.
Occasionally Rahmanian comes back to Iran to visit his family and friends as well as to present a new play. Before immigrating to Canada, he wrote and directed some performances for the stage and Iranian TV between 1985 and 2010. During this time, some Iranian audiences followed his career and works precisely. He has different productions which are related to modern, traditional and classic forms. In my opinion his traditional plays, which are adapted by his modern perspective, are more successful. Overall, his last concert-theatre can represent his powerful and successful association with the audiences, and reach his new audiences.
Performances in Western countries are given under different conditions from Iranian ones. Five years ago, the majority of performances were fully supported by the Iranian government. Nowadays, the government tries to cut the subsidies, and only a few theatre groups are eligible to receive foundation support. Because of this, Rahmanian endeavours to boost audiences so that he can pay his colleagues wages. This might also be a reason for mixing theatre and music, so that the number of audiences increases; the audiences who were interested in watching a concert-theatre.
In his concert-theatre, the focus is more on music. On the one hand, there are the actor and the actress, in comparison with three female singers and eight musicians who play instruments. The show contains ten musical numbers. They create happiness and satisfaction, sensory and auditory, for the audiences. They are not directly related to the concept and content of the script. The songs belong to John Lennon, Andy Williams, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Noel Harrison, Leonard Cohen (Dance Me to the End of Love), Sting, Mary Hopkin (Those Were the Days) as well as some musical groups such as Abba (Money Money Money), Moody Blues (Melancholic Man), etc. All were arranged by Behrooz Safariyan for this concert-theatre. Simultaneously, a video projection also displays different parts of realistic or unrealistic movies that are related to music. Listening to these kinds of music makes an enjoyable and evocative atmosphere for the audiences who are interested in nostalgic singing. Because they are presented in English, they are so pleasant and attractive. It is so rare presenting and singing English songs at public events in Iran.
At the end of this concert-theatre, there is an Iranian song: Koch-e-Banafsheh-Ha was written by Mohammad-Reza Shafei-Kadkani. It had been sung and presented by Farhad Mehrad years ago, and was the popular song in his day. This song has an absorbing sense of remembering Farhad in Iran. At the end of this concert-theatre, Koch-e-Banafsheh-Ha was represented by Reza Yazdani, who is a popular singer in Iran today. The entire audiences joined in. It was the only Persian song and took place at the end of the show as its eleventh piece of music.
Farhad Mehrad and Fereydoon Foroghi were inspired by the West and rock music. They improved this kind of music in Iran. In fact, they established a new form of singing. The accused person (Esfandyar) has been following Farhad’s career and Western music. Esfandyar’s personality is somewhat close to Farhad’s, who started his singing before the Iranian revolution of 1979. Afterwards, he was not permitted to sing. When he was allowed to sing again, it was too late, because he got ill and subsequently died in Paris; however, sometimes he had come back to Iran, and could present his new albums. Because of the aforementioned similarity, one of Farhad Mehrad’s songs was chosen, and presented by Reza Yazdani who is currently a famous singer in Iran. His presence certainly attracts viewers to the concert-theatre.
The latest Rahmanian production is successful in attracting spectators. There are enough concepts to engage the audiences as well as providing them a pleasurable time; however, the level of this play is not the same as his previous productions, and some intellectual audiences expect more challenges to be persuaded to come and watch.
 Mehrdad Rayani-Makhsous is a critic, playwright and director, as well as a principal lecturer at Azad University, Tehran, Iran. He was educated in Manchester University, and his PhD research wasAudience and Mise-en-scène: Manipulating the Performative Aesthetic.
He has directed twenty five performances, and written twenty eight scripts so far. Mehrdad has published fifteen books (theory and scripts), and has also been involved in various programs for TV and radio. He has attended ten international activities through different positions from 1997. His latest performance, called Sound and Fury, was rehearsed and performed by English and Iranian performers in Manchester in 2013.
*All photos provided by the photographers of www.theater.ir