11 Aug 2008
Down in the cellars of the Pleasance Undergrand, meanwhile, the London-based Iranian company 30 Bird present Plastic, an abstract installation and meditation on Teheran’s booming reputation as a centre for plastic surgery, and particularly for sex-change operations. The show consists of a series of tableaux linked by passages of film projected onto the rough walls, and by occasional brief monologues, live or recorded; and the themes involve wounding and bandaging, shifting gender identities, the removal and pickling of unwanted sexual organs, and the sense of some lost, flowery garden of sexual delight, hurt, damaged or hidden.
The single most theatrical gesture in the whole show lies in the separation of male and female audience members, who follow slightly different paths through the experience; this alone is enough to provoke thought about how sharply gender-divided societies accentuate difference, and perhaps heighten desire. . . moments of superb dance and movement.
08 Aug 2008
Verdict: Powerful exploration of form, performance.
Plastic is a fusion of dance, monologue, film and sound which starts at a corrugated iron door. The queuing audience is asked to gather round watching a gap at the bottom filled by two large jars of pickled onions. A pair of feet in shoes and manicured hands remove the jars and the door rolls up, revealing a tunnel-like space beyond.
Beckoned inside, men and women are separated and led on different journeys - to merge again, it transpires, in a physical re-enactment of the central theme. There's a well-executed dance routine from Gemma Donohue and Sara Reyhani wearing West-meets-East black and white costumes, fluid against the brick walls of the storage space.
Plastic is visually striking in costume, multimedia and setting. It is a site-specific piece which exploits spaces effectively. The audience is drawn in, integrated in scenario after scenario, led down a spiral staircase - a journey echoed in video, which replays the performers making the descent, passing and repassing each other. Performers mingle and beckon, encouraging their guests (clients?) to inspect a house-like installation as an interested visitor to a modern art museum.
In the fourth space, the performer puts shoes into carefully placed jars, incarcerating stilettos, pointes and court shoes within vacuums. Returning to the starting space, it is now littered with shoes in a poignant echo of the earlier sequence. The design is stark and exact; black-and-white costumes and installations with bursts of Kath Kidston- esque florals mark the polarities of gender certainty which are then exploited - a urinal has a floral interior; performer Ali Amadi's black leather jacket is reversed to reveal a floral lining in the same pattern.
The spoken word is sporadic but powerful: 'Can I be your wife? Can I be your husband?' Recorded speech is haunting - a passage on the effects of Botox on vaginismus; a conversation with different people 'Are you happy to have your sexual organs removed? Sign here please.'
What it's about is not always clear. The programme says that it concerns 'the traffic between the two sexes in the world capital of cosmetic surgery'. A viewer might find it hard to be that specific, but the piece is certainly provocative and challenging and although lacking in explanation, the experience is difficult to forget. It's a powerful exploration of form and performance.
07 Aug 2008
Mehrdad Seyf's exploration of gender identity descends quickly from a damp, fetid and warm ground-level cellar to cool, white vaults as the audience is encouraged to consider how the body we inhabit determines our sexuality. Like an underworld imagined by Cocteau, each expressionist scene battles the frustrating sightlines of a venue that might otherwise enthral with the surreal comedy of this talented Iranian team.
06 Aug 2008
Elsewhere, in the new labyrinthine Pleasance UnderGrand space, we’re ushered into a pan-Iranian laboratory by the 30 Bird Company, who last visited Edinburgh with The Persian Revolution, a refreshingly complex take on Iranian mores. In their latest work, Plastic, things take an even more opaque turn as director Mehrdad Seyf looks at a country which has, somewhat surprisingly, become the world’s capital of gender modification. So it is that on entering to the sight of women perched on vertiginous heels and dressed in white in the distance, the men and women in the audience are segregated before being led through a living installation involving film and sound constructions.
But first, the pickles. Jars of the things line one of the rooms, on the wall of which a film of the actors is projected. We’ve already been given a loving description of how pickled onions are preserved by a man who then tells of his intention to remove his own sexual organs. Inside, a female voice explains the meanings of her songs through a loudspeaker, before a male voice tells stories that can never be repeated. Elsewhere, a woman has her breasts strapped down in a manner that resembles foot binding.
In some ways, Plastic is an abstract sibling of Free Outgoing, the India set play currently running at the Traverse and involving sexual indiscretions made public in a very private country. Coming from a white western standpoint, at first glance I wondered what all the fuss is about. Here, after all, is a piece of work that takes its concerns very seriously – but those concerns were surely dealt with in Britain in the post-punk, post feminist, post-separatist wave of radical performance in the late 1970s. In America, too, the culture wars of the 1980s took stuff like this as far as it could go. Didn’t they? Put this into a 21st century Iranian context, however, where as recently as last year the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, denied homosexuality even existed in the country, and you realise why Plastic matters.
At a slender 40 minutes, it’s not developed as fully as it might have been, and even here there are too many longueurs between scenes, but it still goes some way to confronting a society where nothing is quite as it seems, including men and women.
05 Aug 2008
All senses are arrested by this surreal, stylish, site-specific piece about sex-change operations and plastic surgery in Iran. Through the damp gloom of WWII bomb shelters, past jars of pickled onions and abandoned shoes we are beckoned by statuesque performers in to the unruly desires and anxieties surrounding cosmetic surgery and the great gender divide. The audience are divided by gender for parts of the show and each group tellingly begins to wonder what the other experiences. Perplexing, sinister, darkly comic, and with a painterly handling of light, as well as teasing; their big tease, pickled onions and plastic surgery – both in the preservation business. Plastic is a clever human ’installation’, but cosmetic and sex change surgery are confusingly blurred.
04 Aug 2008
Plastic, a slick, stylish 55 minutes from Mehrdad Seyf and the Anglo-Iranian company 30 Bird Productions, meditates on many things without settling conveniently on one. It touches on consumerism as well as oppression and surveillance, hinting at the vacuousness of a society where every last thing can be reinvented or thrown away. Most of all it suggests the commodification and manipulation of women, whether through Botox or the diktats of Iran's Islamic state.
The journey through these ideas is literal enough, a walking tour through the catacombs underneath the Pleasance conducted by women clad in white: surgical technicians, perhaps, though they might as easily be Zara salespeople. You're segregated by gender, women on one side of a wall, men on the other, one minute listening to misogynistic pop songs being taken apart, the next watching video of an actor winding her torso into an endless skein of bandage. Two of the cast slide off their high heels and perform an awkward, angular dance barefoot on the stone floor; a few minutes later, in a separate part of the complex, a woman hurries anxiously between glass jars, compulsively placing a stiletto in each.
This piece is as much a series of stills as a work of theatre, a succession of stylised vignettes whose relationship remains teasing and enigmatic. But what Plastic loses in narrative energy it gains through the haunting power of its images: a family dinner table weirdly lacking guests, a set of rollerblinds in a perky Cath Kidston print forming a sort of prison cell.
And while its political logic could be accused of lacking subtlety, it evokes with discomfiting immediacy a society from which pleasure has been surgically removed.