Lipstick: A Fairy Tale of Iran is a drag and boylesque triumph of querness

Part theatre, part drag cabaret, Lipstick: A Fairy Tale of Iran fuses storytelling, vaudeville, theatre, lip-synch and boylesque in a story of rage, redemption and weaponised whimsy, which straddles Tehran, Derry and London. It is a celebration of queerness and theatre and is headlining 96 Festival that is coming back to London after popular demand.

In 2010, just after the contested 2009 Iranian election, during riots urging the removal of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from office, writer/director Sarah Chew went to Iran on a theatre residency. The experience changed her life. Lipstick: a fairy tale of modern Iran is inspired by that time, driven by the passionate desire to address the rise in hard borders and cultural and ethnic exclusion – from a political and from a personal perspective.

Lipstick is about how it feels to be making sincere, charged, powerful art, even under the threat of censorship and imprisonment. At that time, Iran was part of a collection of Middle Eastern territories the US Government still titled “the Axis of Evil”. Prior to visiting, the title had coloured Sarah’s assumptions of what she would find there – assumptions which were challenged, on a daily basis, throughout her stay. When she got home, Lipstick, was born.

Sarah Chew says “Sadly, we don’t have to look too far outside the edges of our own nation to see borders that threaten our capacity to engage with people we see as different to ourselves. As Brexit looms ever closer, what is it doing to our perceptions of people we see as Other? What does the threat of a hard border in Ireland do to our already heightened fear of terrorism?

What role does tightened immigration here, and our Government’s tacit acceptance of Trump’s travel bans in the US, play in this? How do we fight to keep our personal, emotional borders open, while all around us, governments build physical and ideological walls?

And what does our Foreign Office’s apparent abandonment of British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, currently imprisoned without fair trial in Tehran’s notorious Evin Women’s Prison, say about our national attitudes to those on the wrong side of a difficult border? What power do we have to say: not in my name?”

YASS Magazine met the director Sarah Chew and the protagonist Topsie Redfern and this is the exclusive interview.

What was the idea behind this performance and what shall we expect to see?

S: I was in Iran in 2010 and witnessed the political unrest that followed the contested election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. I have also been very involved in the cabaret and drag scene here in the UK. 

I have seen a lot of curation that aims to set so called minority interests against each other, and I wanted to explore a space where different activisms can be celebrated and connected rather than compared and contested. 

What were your thoughts and inspirations and what is the message you would like to convey?

S: My inspirations 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 grace in the face of horrific oppression; and the Radical Drag Queens of the 80s, who also who used their art to protest their voices being silenced, and did so with wit, grit, courage and grace in the face of horrific oppression. Many of my Iranian collaborators are lost to me via internet censorship and draconian immigration laws; many of the Radical Drag Queens died of AIDS. I salute them both, so hard, and their spirits will always have a front row seat and a glass of champagne at our show. 

What are the similarities and connections between the political scene in Iran and in the UK Brexit era?

S: None. We in the UK are still, even in the place we are now – a democracy much lesser than the one we had pre-Brexit – incomparably freer and more privileged than our Iranian counterparts who have lived under censorship and under religious and gender oppression for forty years. 

However, I urge UK citizens who have relaxed into feeling that whatever Brexit is, it will be OK, to look at the ’79 revolution in Iran, and remember how quickly things can change. Iran changed overnight, unrecognisably. Many people suffered, but women and LGBTQ+ people suffered unimaginably, and still do. We should always be mindful that anywhere else, including in our own country, change can happen that fast. 

How difficult was it to prepare the show?

S: The text has gone though many revisions, and has developed over three years, supported by dramaturg Penny Black and associate dramaturg Aaron Laomont. . We are very grateful to Arts Council England, executive producer Palash Dave, our kickstarter donors and the lovely staff at Omnibus for supporting myself, Paul Virides and his team to promote the show. Directing and writing can be a very vulnerable combination of responsibilities in any rehearsal room but I am lucky in my amazing actors Siobhan O’Kelly and Nathan Kiley, whose commitment, passion and support make creating this project with them an absolute pleasure

How has the immigration and the country borders shaped you as an artist to come up with the idea of this play?

S: Immigration rules here and in Iran mean it is unlikely I can safely return to Iran. I am by no mean even a tiny victim of immigration laws – I see so many families ripped apart and it is devastating, incomparable to my small sadness. But even though I have not experienced anything like the horrors of border control, I have lost friends and collaborators in Iran, and I miss them, and they are why I wrote the play. 

What is your opinion about the drag scene nowadays and the visibility of drag people?

T: I’ve been doing Drag for about 6 years now – as time goes by, I feel there is much more variety and diversity on the Drag scene I work on. Perhaps that variety has always been there in London and around the UK, however, it is becoming more visible to me  – it feels there is more cross-pollination between different Drag tribes, so that now I am rubbing shoulders with many more styles of Drag artists than when I began.

RuPaul and her Drag Race have been a massive catalyst for the explosion of Drag in popular culture. It is not unusual to turn on the television and see Drag Artists – please contact my Agent if you want to put me on TV or even Film… no really!

Do you feel queer artists are able to express themselves openly and without fear in our days?

T: I think we are so lucky to live in one of the most liberal societies in the world. Things are not perfect. However, when you set the freedoms and legal protections we enjoy against, say, Chechnya with its’ gay purges, or the ‘witch hunt’ in Tanzania-  to name but two examples of far too many – we are so lucky. LGBTQ+ people across much of the world do not have the freedom even to exist, let alone give open artistic expression to their lives and stories. We do have freedom and it must not be taken for granted. But who is going to tell their stories? This is an issue that “Lipstick” explores.

What was the experience being a part of this show?

T: I’m finding it a joy to work with a bunch of very clever, talented and most of all nice folk. There is a constant supply of chocolate and biscuits to feed our imaginations and souls. The play deals with a lot of very interesting issues. My character – Mark – A drag artist who is setting up a cabaret club with his best friend Orla, has to battle with issues of self-esteem, making a living as an artist, the complexity of gay relationships in a big city like London, abuse of power and chem sex. I often work in Musical Theatre where the life of its’ characters can sometimes be much simpler and their stories are tied up in a neat bow – this feels more complex and difficult to resolve in an interesting way as an actor.

What were the main challenges you faced?

T: I am having to develop new skills. As a Drag Artist I sing live, however in “Lipstick” I am lip-synching – a skill which I think I may have underestimated! It’s very technical!

The play is part Cabaret, there is a strong Burlesque element. At one point I have to strip to everything accept a corset – being naked in front of lots of people is not something I’m used to – believe it or not – so this is a big challenge.

How different is Nathan Kiley to Topsie Redfern?

T: Topsie is one side of Nathan magnified and exaggerated. At first Topsie was a mask that allowed me to be braver and more expressive. However, the more I exist as Topsie the more Topsie influences Nathan. As Nathan I am now more confident, also much more comfortable with my own femininity – something which I grew up trying to suppress or hide.

How would you describe Topsie Redfern?

T: Single, warm, fun, witty – did I say single?

Who are your role models and the people you look up to?

T: My Mum has always been a major role model – she was a Cabaret Artist too and I have tremendous respect that she brought up my twin-sister and I by herself whilst remaining fabulous at all times. I would also quite like to be Beyonce – who wouldn’t?! “What would Beyonce do?” is a useful mantra for life!

What are your future plans?

T: To keep being able to pay my bills by prancing around and showing off. Anyone who can help with this – don’t hesitate to get in touch!

Lipstick: A Fairy Tale of Iran which will take place 26th Feb – 24th March 2019 at the Omnibus Theatre as part of “96 Festival” a celebration of queerness and theatre.

*all images are courtesy of Flavia Fraser and Omnibus Theatre

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