Sarah Chew | On Lipstick

By March 1, 2019News

Lipstick: A Fairy Tale of Iran is inspired by time I spent in Tehran in 2009-10.

The annual Fadjr Festival is one of the major theatre and film festivals in the Middle East, it is a festival on a huge scale and the Dramatic Arts Council of Iran is generous in its invitations to foreign guests – invitations which, to my surprise, were not rescinded in the light of the political turbulence that was rocking the country at the time, following a contested election. I can honestly say I saw some of the best theatre I have ever seen in my life there, and had the privilege of meeting and working with incredibly skilled and inspiring artists who changed my working practice forever.

Lipstick is a salute to those artists, that work and that time. It’s a story that shares ideas I care passionately about around feminism, queerness and the political power of narrative disruption, and which I believe to be as authentic a story as I could possibly tell. But I need to protect the artists I was working with in Iran, who still live under unimaginable oppression, so I have told a story that, while being authentic, is entirely fiction.

It’s intended to be sensually accurate. The emotional effect of the level of surveillance I was under in Tehran was very deep. Despite the machine guns, I wasn’t actually scared of violence, but I was very scared of breaking laws and customs I did not understand, and of being arrested and disciplined, and I was mentally exhausted by feeling so watchful over my own behaviour at all times. This feeling did not dissipate for many months after I returned, but it took time to acknowledge it existed at all.

I remember I went to meet a friend in Soho the night I got back to the UK. There was a busker at Leicester Square tube and I worry I must have frightened him to death because it was the first time I’d heard live jazz since I got back and I just started doing loud, messy, Emma Thompson in Sense and Sensibility sobbing. Sometimes you do not realise how much tension you are holding until something random and beautiful releases it.

I am telling a story about my experience of the lives of women in Iran, and that is a complicated position to be in because I am not from Iran, I don’t speak Farsi, I was only there briefly. I am very mindful of this in telling the story – I am constantly weighing up whether I or my central character are qualified to tell it. I’m constantly weighing up what stories we are entitled to tell, and what stories we have a responsibility to tell, and how those Venn Diagrams have complicated intersections.

While I was in Iran, I was staggered by the clarity, depth, passion and wit of the feminism I encountered – nothing I had previously read or seen about Iran in any way documented the fierce and courageous women and men fighting for equal rights for women and trans people in a country where a woman is legally worth a quarter of a man, and, while transsexuality is legal, there are only two recognised sexes. Many of the activists I met have had their rights to travel rescinded, if they can publish their work at all, it is in Farsi, and thus very hard for people in the English speaking world to find. As someone in the English speaking world, you may be aware of a Facebook site called My Stealthy Freedom: it drives me mad that many people may see this as the epitome of feminist protest in Iran. While women uploading photos of themselves without their headscarves on to Facebook is in itself an act of courage, you ain;t seen nothing yet! But I understand why this is all we may be aware of because access to the work of other brave and passionate activists is not something most of us have access to.

To compare our lives in the UK with lives of artists in Iran would be gross: our freedoms are incomparable. But we all need to watch and treasure our freedoms of expression, as these are absolutely not guaranteed. The speed of change following the ’79 revolution in Iran – where we went from girls in miniskirts in sports cars, to mandatory hijab, overnight – teaches us that. We can lose spaces for sharing of opinion, expression, art, desire and community, – even spaces like the wonderful Omnibus Theatre – overnight.

We can see this in Soho, and in the London drag scene in general. We can see this in online spaces – in the past year, new laws in the States called FOSTA/SESTA have disproportionately affected changes to websites and apps here in the UK, which have in turn endangered the lives of sex workers, and limited everyone’s sexual expression through dating and encounter sites. Can’t find your favourite naughty Tumblr page? Some of your pics on Scruffs seem to have been deleted? That’ll be FOSTA/SESTA. Sex work communities have protested very impressively, but no-one is going to go on a march because of a missing dick pic. But maybe we should be. Apparently small incursions like this still prove how fast a government – in this case a foreign one – can change and in some cases obliterate spaces and histories we thought we owned.

In claiming ownership, we must also honour history.

In Lipstick, I am telling a story that I feel needs to be told because these lives must be honoured – but I am deeply aware that my telling of it is inevitably flawed. I am fascinated by the ethics and responsibilities of witnessing, and of carrying the word for people unable to do so. I’d love people to come and see it and share in that debate.

My inspiration were the amazing Iranian theatre artists I met in Tehran, who used their art to protest their voices being silenced, and did so with wit, grit, courage and kindness in the face of horrific oppression and the risk to their own lives. But my inspiration was also, as a very young person, seeing the work of Lindsay Kemp, and Blooplips, and looking further into the work of the Radical Drag Queens of the 80s, who also used their art to protest their voices being silenced and their lives being ended, and also did so with wit, grit, courage and kindness.

Many of my Iranian collaborators are lost to me because internet censorship and draconian immigration laws make communication impossible; many of the Radical Drag Queens died of AIDS. This affects me very personally. I salute them all through Lipstick, and their spirits will always have a front row seat and a glass of champagne at our show.

© Sarah Chew Feb 23rd 2019

LIPSTICK: A FAIRY TALE OF IRAN runs until 24 Mar – get your tickets HERE→


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