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Death and the king 

OneLight Theatre’s latest is an adaptation of one of Iran’s most important plays, Death of Yazdgerd. Michael Fleury reports.

The reign of Yazdgerd III, king of Persia from 632 to 637 AD, is not an enviable one by any standard. In his first year, Yazdgerd’s kingdom was invaded by Arab armies. Then, they occupied his capital city of Ctesiphon, forcing Yazdgerd to go into exile in 637 AD. Fourteen years later, he was tracked down by his enemies and killed. It wasn’t exactly a typical life of power and privilege.

The event was especially significant in the region now known as Iran, marking the onset of Islam in the area after hundreds of years of Persian rule. But despite the historical impact, the details surrounding Yazdgerd’s death remain largely unknown.

Enter Death of Yazdgerd, OneLight Theatre’s new adaptation of a classic piece of Iranian theatre. The play is a fictional dramatization of the circumstances surrounding Yazdgerd’s death. Written by Iranian playwright Bahram Beyzaie, OneLight’s production is particularly exciting for creative director Shahin Sayadi, who knew the play from his own childhood.

“I’m a first-generation immigrant, and this play is very, very important to Iranians,” he says. “It is perhaps the most important play in Iranian history.”

In the play, the king’s body is found in a mill. As the king’s advisors attempt to determine what happened, the miller, his wife and their daughter offer plausible stories about how the king has died while simultaneously trying to distance themselves from blame. However, the conflicting stories only complicate the situation with allegations of sexual abuse against the king and questions about the king’s true identity.

The play was first performed in 1980, one year after the Islamic Revolution in Iran. It was met with controversy. A film version, also by Beyzaie, was quickly banned by censors in the Iranian government. Allegedly, they objected to a number of themes in Death of Yazdgerd, including frank discussion about social class differences, women’s rights and religion. According to Sayadi, these—as well as a number of other themes—make the story not only still relevant, but also universal.

“One thing that is throughout the play is the idea of invasion. Cultural invasion, political invasion, geographical, sexual invasion, invasion of the mind and body,” he explains. “That idea of invasion, I don’t think any nation can escape that. Every day we are afraid about American culture invading Canada. Every day. Almost constantly. At the same time, always within the Canadian culture and identity are the people who are trying to make a voice for themselves and become a part of this nation. In a way, they’re invading somebody else’s space and culture. That has a lot to do with what the play is about.”

Besides covering challenging material, the play is a major undertaking for OneLight in other regards. Original music has been composed for the play, as well as animation that will be incorporated into the performance. Sayadi spent months creating and polishing an all-new English translation of the play from its original language, Farsi.

“It was quite a challenge. The language that the play was written in is not the modern Farsi that we speak,” explains Sayadi. Beyzaie “has done quite a beautiful job of mixing the old Persian language with the modern. Persian is a very poetic language, anyway—symbolism is all over the every day speech. English is a more expressive language, very straightforward. And how to find that poetry in English was a challenge.”

After its run in Halifax, Death of Yazdged will take an unprecedented trip to the west coast for a five-night stint in Vancouver. It will potentially face a broader audience than any OneLight production yet. Regardless, Sayadi is confident that a story from 7th century Iran has the power to touch Iranians, Canadians and many others.

“The heart of the conflict is a conflict within the Muslim world, between the Iranians and the Arabs. But it could also speak to what’s happening between the invading forces of the western world into the near-east, or the near-eastern population invading the space of the westerners,” he says. “Regardless of how you take the play, it can give people an idea of who these people are in this region, where they come from, and why they are the way they are.”

Death of Yazdgerd, October 4 to 15 at Neptune Studio, 1593 Argyle, 8pm, $15 adv/$18 door, 429-7070.

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