Isfahan Calling @ Old Red Lion, London

cast list
Zahra Ahmadi, Richard Ings, Matthew Ashforde, Rebecca Keatley, Avi Nassa, Paul McEwan, Riz Ahmed

directed by
Kelly Wilkinson
Philip de Gouveia’s first play, The Six Wives of Timothy Leary, which premired in 2007 before appearing at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios and Edinburgh’s Pleasance, received widespread critical acclaim.

And now his second, Isfahan Calling, has come out just as strong, albeit for very different reasons.

Whilst the success of Six Wives lay within its innovative structure, which enabled us to learn about one man’s life solely through the words of six women, it is primarily the subject matter of this new play that sees it prevail.

Set in the present day, Isfahan Calling tells of a team of British journalists who broadcast covert propaganda into Iran from a base somewhere on the Iraqi border. Their aim is to undermine the Iranian regime in the eyes of its troops, as coalition forces invade and attempt to destroy Iran’s nuclear weapons.

The ultimate aim of Information Operations (the military term for this programme designed to affect behaviour by using information systems) is to save lives. We soon discover, however, that the main objective is blurred by the specific stances and priorities of the individuals involved.

British-born Zahra, for example, has a personal axe to grind because her parents were exiled from Iran in the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Ali, of Persian origin, is driven on by memories of his own horrendous experiences in previous wars, whilst Roy’s intentions and judgements are skewed by his journalistic instincts which make him want to have a major personal impact upon the outcome.

In this way, the propaganda battle that should be controlled from the radio room (where the entire drama is set) is also fought within it as Roy spurs the team on by presenting the coalition’s successes to it whilst omitting its failures.

Things take a turn for the worse when Roy intercepts a broadcast from the President of Iran and fakes him announcing that Iran has used nuclear weapons against the coalition. He believes that the Iranian soldiers will turn against the regime when they hear that these were launched onto Iranian soil, but the plan backfires because coalition troops also hear and believe the broadcast. From victory seeming inevitable, the coalition are suddenly forced to retreat, although it is never proven that Roy’s broadcast was responsible for this reversal.

Indeed, in the same way that Six Wives never proclaims that Timothy Leary was entirely responsible or conversely blameless for all the misfortunes that befell his wives, Isfahan Calling does not categorically state that propaganda wars cost more lives than they save or vice versa. It is more concerned with presenting the complexities involved than with telling us exactly what to conclude.

Paul McEwan presents Roy as an affable but determined man, and his shouting tirades provide real dramatic tension whilst still keeping the situation entirely believable. Zahra Ahmadi delivers a highly sensitive performance as Zahra, with her seductive broadcasts to the Iranian troops to persuade them to surrender also moving the audience (even though they know they are just an act). Matthew Ashforde is also convincing as the downtrodden technician, Lee, whilst Avi Nassa successfully imbues Ali with ‘Persian’ sensibilities.

The play is also helped by being staged in a room so intimate that it conveys both the physical and metaphorical heat inherent in this Middle East scenario, and an ending that illustrates just how wide the gulf can be between someone’s actions in life and the fate they are dealt.

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