AMERICAN THEATRE: Arian Moayed Brings His Whole (Divided) Self to ‘Hamlet’

Setting Shakespeare’s tragedy in Persia isn’t just an aesthetic choice for the Iranian-American actor; it’s an existential one.

(Above: Arian Moayed and Barzin Akhavan in Waterwell’s “Hamlet” at the Sheen Center. Photo by Eric Michael Pearson)

It’s looking like a summer of Hamlets, both around the regions—Shakespeare fests in both Idaho and Colorado are staging the iconic tragedy, with women in the title role—and here in New York, where Oscar Isaac will take up the bare bodkin in Sam Gold’s production at the Public in July.

The first great Dane out of the gate, though, is Waterwell’s new production at the Sheen Center, running May 10-June 3. Directed by and starring Waterwell’s co-artistic directors, Tom Ridgely and Arian Moayed, respectively, this new Hamlet is set in pre-World War I Persia, with a mixed cast of Iranians, South Asians, and white people suggesting an East/West political backdrop quite different from the original’s axis of Danes, Norwegians, and Poles. The new version follows Shakespeare’s text, though roughly 30 percent is performed in Farsi, and the whole thing is accompanied by a striking live score, written and performed by Mohsen Namjoo.

I spoke to Moayed—who’s acted in such plays as Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad ZooThe Humans, and Guards at the Taj—last week, on the day of elections in Iran. Moayed was only five when his parents moved the family from Iran to the U.S., but what he lacks in firsthand memories of his birthplace he makes up for with a lifetime of thoughts and feelings about his dual immigrant identity. In his telling, Hamlet has proven to be exceptionally fertile ground to explore and dramatize them.

So why play Hamlet?
I did King Lear at the Public with Sam Waterston, and I think he was the one who said to me, “You should totally play Hamlet.” That sparked a conversation with Tom Ridgely about what it would mean for me to play Hamlet. We realized that whoever plays this part really has to bring all that he or she knows is true into it. For us it was the idea that here I am, an Iranian who has grown up in the United States, and I’m constantly wondering: What part of me is American? What part is Iranian? Balancing those two ideas is something all immigrants do: We’re both desperately trying to fit in and desperately trying to remain true to who we are. That was the spark of this Hamlet: What happens if he’s mixed, and has both Western and Eastern influences? This is a play that invites the huge existential questions, and this is mine.

There’s also a political story here too, right?
Yes, we started with the interpersonal drama, then we started to figure out the global ramifications. There are basically two time periods in Iran’s history where the influence of the West is most pronounced: One is in the 1950s, and the other is in the early 1900s. There are a lot of reasons why we chose the second option. For one, that’s when the British Empire came in, seeking—domination might be too strong a word, but seeking to expand their influence, definitely. And that’s a story that’s still going on. When you look at Syria today, the conflict there is a direct descendant of those rules, those carvings up by the British, that shifted an entire region that was tribal into borders that didn’t make sense. Just imagine that someone came to New York City and said, “We’re going to carve the city in half, make a line down Broadway, and this side is one region, the other side is another.” You’d have people who say, “But I work on the other side.” So we’re still dealing with the ramifications of those decisions. On the second day of rehearsal the U.S. dropped the “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan; the last line of the play is “Bid the soldiers shoot.”

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