Hamlet is often cited as Shakespeare’s greatest play: timeless, relevant, and tragic. But what if the Prince of Denmark is in fact Iranian? A new production of the tragedy by New York City’s Waterwell Theater asks just that: What would it mean if Hamlet was Iranian, and if the play was set in Iran?

“Hamlet is so Iranian,” says Iranian-American actor Arian Moayed with a laugh. He plays Hamlet and helped develop the production along with director Tom Ridgely — who Moayed describes as a “Shakespeare guru” — and the cast. During rehearsals, they started to see something in Hamlet’s character they hadn’t expected. For example, Hamlet is polite to his mother to the point of paining himself — displaying that most Iranian of all characteristics, taarof. He’s set on following a certain set of honored social codes, even if it is at odds with the situation he is confronted with, and with the fast pace of change around him. 

About 30 to 40 percent of the play is spoken in Persian, including the lines spoken by the ghost of Hamlet’s father and dialogue between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. “People are excited by it,” Moayed says. “They speak Persian to each other when it’s incredibly personal.” The Waterwell team chose not to translate those parts of the play back into English. “We don’t think it needs it; the play is universal.” Persian just seemed to fit the emotional atmosphere of the play, and the play’s Iranian actors often spoke in Persian during rehearsals— not only because some of them were recent immigrants to America, but also because it helped them distil some of the play’s most intense moments.

Hamlet and the Immigrant Experience

The play, which had its opening night on May 10, runs until June 3 at the Sheen Center in New York. Arian Moayed and director Tom Ridgely, who co-founded Waterwell in 2002, had the idea of an Iranian Hamlet about four years ago, spurred on by the question: What would happen if Hamlet was himself both Eastern and Western? “In our production,” says Moayed, “Hamlet is the son of a Persian warrior, and a blonde, blue-eyed foreign bride. So he is completely stuck in the middle.”

Being stuck in the middle is one way of describing a common fate of an immigrant— an individual caught between competing loyalties, traditions, and cultural impulses, and who is affected by the political realities that shape their two homes. When Waterwell started exploring ways of bringing an Iranian Hamlet to the stage, this stuck-in-the-middle phenomenon was very much in play, and domestic and global rifts were definitely in abundance. Even so, it was a different time. Many Iranian-Americans were hopeful: President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate who many hoped would be able to open dialogue with their adopted home. had just been elected. At that time, few could have anticipated President Trump’s administration or an executive order that would target people from Muslim-majority countries, including Iranians. “We thought it would be relevant because of the Arab Spring, or the spark of the Syrian situation,” Moayed says. But, in 2017, on the second day of rehearsal, when the US military dropped the “mother of all bombs” on Afghanistan, it lent an eerie meaning to some of the military references in Hamlet.

Waterwell’s production is set in 1917 Tehran, at a time when world powers — Britain, Russia, the Ottoman Empire — saw an opportunity in the Middle East to increase land ownership and advance their power. “There was exploration culturally, but there was also the carving up of the land,” Moayed says. It was also the precursor to one of the most defining and devastating chapters of the 20th century, World War I. The production explores some of the key themes of the play — loyalty and deception, family, corruption — through the lens of politics, international relations and world events of 1917, but also what it could mean today. What did the dividing up of the land 100 years ago contribute to what’s happening in Syria today? And what does it mean on a personal level too, in terms of identity? 

“Claudius is Westernizing Iran, which many people were doing in Iran, and which many people wanted,” says Moayed. “They didn’t know what the ramifications of it were. But you can imagine: here’s a Rolls Royce, this is what a telephone can do, here’s electricity, all that. It’s no different than now. Technology — Facebook and Snapchat and so on — Iranians want these things. It’s political enough to to set it in 1917 Tehran, with the first ever Iranian-American playing Hamlet.”

What Does it Mean to be a Citizen?

The executive order did have an impact on the production. One of the actors was unable to travel back to New York after spending time back in Iran; one of the play’s lighting designers who had been studying in New York but planned to return to Iran felt he couldn’t leave the country for fear of not be allowed back in. 

The production also draws on the history of Iranian performance, and the play is done as a theater-in-the-round piece. “It mimics the tazia, a theatrical format of theater that’s done in Iran, and has been done for probably thousands of years,” says Moayed. Today, the tazia is a key part of marking the martyrdom of Hussein, but it has its roots in formal mourning rites in a broader sense too. 

Iranian musician Mohsen Namjoo composed the music for Hamlet. Moayed says having another Iranian artist collaborating on the project has been valuable to the entire process, and the fact that he performs live each night gives the play even more emotional and atmospheric impact. 

As well as staging plays that respond to shifts in world events and capitalizing on what it calls “the inherent danger in live performance,” Waterwell develops and produces films and content for television, and runs an extensive education program, working with New York City school curriculums. “Our motto is: engagement, empowerment, entertainment and empathy,” says Moayed. Together with Ridgely, Moayed oversees artistic direction and has taught at the Professional Performing Arts School, one of Waterwell’s educational partners. “We believe that theater is the one place where empathy is constantly being used. The job of the actor is to have the audience member put themselves in their shoes. That is literally the act of empathy. We teach them: what does it mean to be a citizen?”

Moayed takes a practical stance when it comes to talking about President Trump and what it’s like to be an Iranian-American today. He’s frustrated and worried, and, as an American, humiliated and “deeply embarrassed.” But he’s focused on how his work might respond to the current climate, and what role art can play. He and Ridgley never envisioned an Iranian Hamlet being an overtly political performance. But he says if it is received as a piece of resistance and ends up changing one person’s mind about Iranian-Americans, or about what it means to be an immigrant and to welcome difference, that can only be a good outcome. “This is all I can do as an Iranian-American who loves Iran and love America,” he says.

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