REVIEW: Swim Team Pushes Against the Tide of Inequity With Imagination and Powerful Metaphor
Have you ever imagined yourself swimming for 20 km, and doing that while wearing a six-kilogram bathing suit? This is exactly what Iranian swimmer Elham Asghari did in September 2013, when pictures and YouTube clips of her stirred international protests in Western media. Her custom-made loose-fitting swimsuit included a headscarf, yet the Iranian Ministry of Sports and Youth Affairs refused to register her alleged new swimming record in the Caspian Sea because her outfit was considered too revealing. Women’s participation in organized sports at home and abroad has become a contentious matter in the Islamic Republic of Iran after the 1979 revolution. In Swim Team by Iranian award-winning and internationally-renowned director and playwright Jaber Ramezani, swimming has also become a central metaphor of women’s fight for equality. Its first Canadian production (produced by Nowadays Theatre in collaboration with Alma Matters Productions) is part of the 2018 SummerWorks Lab in Toronto, with each performance followed by a Q&A session to help the artists further develop it. Under the direction of Aida Keykhaii, the entire creative team puts together a show with exquisite symbolic moments and a gripping plea for women’s rights, while Mohammad Yaghoubi’s dramaturgy makes the play accessible for Canadian audiences.
Swimming coach Roya (Banafsheh Taherian) trains three young women – Lili (Parya Tahsini), Katy (Sarah Saberi), and Nari (Tina Bararian) – to take part in the national championship. They are in the desert, a place paradoxically called “River Valley,” where water must be purchased at the only store in town. Roya decides, “We will practice with no water, with hypothetical water,” and so they do. In its climactic scene, the play blurs the distinction between reality and illusion: Lili drowns while the others keep screaming “Stop it! There is no water! This is an imaginary pool!” The coach’s final soliloquy changes the entire play’s meaning through a reversal that nears classical Greek tragedy. Comparing herself to Michael Phelps, the play’s leitmotiv as a symbol of a fully successful Western male swimmer, Roya reveals that everything, including the girls, have been only her fantasy.
Keykhaii explains during the Q&A that the production of Swim Team in Iran, directed by playwright Ramezani, had to observe the country’s religious rules. Female actors wore the hijab at all times, and no dances or songs were included in the show. The observance of these laws in the public space of the theatre ultimately contradicted reality, because women are able to act freely in the privacy of their homes. This inspired Keykhaii to direct the show in Canada, where she was able to fully exercise her artistic freedom. From a trans/intercultural perspective, the Toronto production of Swim Team ironically provides its multicultural audiences with a more realistic depiction of Persian women’s daily life. When the four women take off their hijabs and chadors (traditional black Islamic attire) after entering Roya’s living room, when they sing, dance and laugh, their actions resignify the stage not only as home, but also as a space of shared intimacy between performers and the audience.
An award-winning actor and director in Iran, Swim Team is Kaykhaii’s first show directed in English, for which she also designed set, costumes, and sound. Her ability to create multilayered performance signs that complement the spoken lines proves yet again that theatre does not have to observe naturalism and that cultural diversity enriches Canadian theatre. Swim Team is also the first theatre show in English for Iranian-born actor Taherian. In Roya, she foreshadows the character’s tragedy through restrained gestures, permanently sad glances, and the emotional depth of her speech. The show’s further development could help the three younger actors provide more subtext to their nuanced character portrayal. Yet, their physical performance is impressive and fully supports Kaykhaii’s usage of reality versus imagination to articulate the show’s visual metaphor and heighten the play’s message. Their occasional exchanges in Farsi are symbolic reminders of where the play takes place, but need to be integrated into these scenes’ realistic style. As English serves as a necessary convention in a play performed in translation, it is this author’s belief that the audience’s suspension of linguistic disbelief must be preserved.
Lili, Katy, and Nari start by doing breathing exercises in clear plastic bins full of actual water, which allow the audience to see their faces. Like freedom, water can only exist in small quantities and under continuous surveillance in both the play’s desert landscape and oppressive society. A scene in which Roya “builds” a pool in front of the audience, using chairs and long women’s scarfs, is treated like a ritual. In contrast, during the numerous training sessions on the dry living room carpet her students embody the water in a surprising, but compelling, display of psychological realism: all gasp for air; get splashed when they take turns “diving”; Lili is genuinely terrified of water; and Katy even asks for permission to “dry off” with a cloth the edge of the “pool.” The three young women’s relationship to the imaginary water reads like a victory against oppression, but only until we understand that they are only the coach’s “fantasy students” who shared with her a dream within a dream. The absence of water in the “fantasy pool” and even more so the death of “fantasy Lili” retroactively become symbols of the ultimate denial of freedom, of a dictatorship controlling even people’s imagination and making them self-censor it.
The first Canadian staging of Swim Team is a beautiful show, as well as a daring political gesture during a time when Iranian women have intensified their fight for equality and human rights. In the Q&A, an audience member praised the show for reminding her of the relationship between imagination and social change. Both Ramezani’s play and Nowadays Theatre’s production are convincing proof of this. In the so-called “man’s world,” however, a woman may still be forced to feel powerless, even in her fantasies. So, what’s next?!
Diana Manole (PhD) is a Romanian-Canadian scholar and print dramaturg, a Pushcart prize-nominated English-language poet, as well as an award-winning playwright and literary translator. She has published extensively in Canada, the US, and the UK, on post-colonial and post-communist theatre, exilic theatre, and intercultural performance. Her article, “Accented Actors: From Stage to Stages via a Convenience Store” (Theatre Research in Canada, 2015), was the first scholarly investigation of actors’ immigrant accents in theatre and performance. She lives in Toronto and teaches at Trent University.