Podcasts, Persia, and Murder – ‘Things Hidden Since The Foundation Of The World’ Review

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Image credit: Chris Payne

★★★★★

To Google was already a verb by the time I was born. Data, and its opposite, noise, were well established in daily life. And the philosophical question, as to whether information amounted to knowledge, had already been searched for centuries. But today, it is asked of our strange new world of ‘investigative’ storytelling – and if the idea of a deep dive might trick us into thinking we know the world better than we do.

This is the underlying current of Things Hidden Since The Foundation of the World, co-written, directed, and performed by Javaad Alipoor. But it is explored in ‘the most Western way possible’ – through the foil of a true crime podcast. Exiled from Iran after the 1979 Revolution, and murdered in Germany in 1992, Fereydoun Farrokhzad is introduced to the audience as ‘the Iranian Tom Jones’. Now relatable, the sex-symbol/pop-singer’s unsolved murder seems all the more brutal.

‘The more you know, the more you understand,’ the constant refrain of the podcast’s presenter, played by Asha Reid. But like all true true crime content, it is left unsolved – with a bonus episode for Patreon backers. As an audio producer, I felt seen.

Reid goes in hard on her plosives; her pace quickens, her arguments spiral, and the satire subtly turns instead on those in the stalls. ‘You are becoming a better global citizen through research,’ she promises. (The audience titter with self-awareness at lines like ‘Pronunciation is half the battle!’) And this is Things Hidden’s triumph – seducing us with the familiar, to send home truths like sucker punches.

Javaad Alipoor introduces the performance, and leads an ensemble of different talents. ‘Too rum and coke’ for ISIS, but hands stained ‘purple with pomegranate juice,’ his role is the audience’s charmer – into the constant fourth wall-breaking, and out of their assumptions.

Self-assured and utterly hilarious, he constructs himself as a bridge between the gap between our stories and theirs, or ‘us and them’. Born by a white, Northern woman – and artistic director of the theatre company – and an Iranian man, Alipoor plays on his mixed heritage as a privilege.

Save one hilarious diasporic dramatic outpouring, Alipoor states that this isn’t a story about his identity, of ‘two waves crashing together in Bradford forming me’ – eyebrows lift – ‘a child’. It’s a smooth tongue jabbed firmly in cheek at the audience, at himself, and perhaps those who capitalise on the prejudices they face in other cultures, whilst doing little to challenge or confront them. 

Iranian-born musician Raam Emami (King Raam) first joins in video, then later, in person. He, and later, his family, moved to Canada after the murder of their father, a political academic. ‘The Iranian regime forced me to be Iranian,’ his refrain – he has really started a podcast – though the Canadian government has given him little support or real refuge since. 

To Farrokhzad, Raam adds another narrative of exile, one which also challenges the binary in his moves to and from the region since. So too does his storytelling quietly avoid the exploitation of most true crime, focussing on the warmth of his father in the documentary footage, or spoiling his own story, by assuring the audience of his mother’s escape.

Things Hidden excels as it emulates the problems it seeks to tackle, using the tools of marginalisation to highlight such marginalisation in society. A play critiquing the endless consumption of data as knowledge, it is dense by design. But it delves deeper, offering philosophical insights into the organisation and value of information today. How we came to this productivity-obsessed society. Why we define what we are by what we do. And how both contribute to a compulsion to cram every spare moment (‘you’re chopping onions, running the bath’) with content.

On entry, we participate in a blue link blackhole down our own phones, which takes us from Egon Schiele to Jews in cabaret bars, then into the structure of Wikipedia itself. (The audience suggestion of the Austrian artist is indicative of the capital crowd’s privilege, and (perhaps performative) position, which sets Alipoor up perfectly.)

Even more is delivered in the gasps in between; what ‘Tehrangeles’ means to the one million Iranians who now live in LA, or the role of Friday night ‘showmen’ like Fereydoun Farrokhzad (that’s Thursday night, to you) in a country which had colour television before newspapers.

We see for ourselves how referencing the Welsh singer might make Farrokhzad more relatable to Western audiences, but it’s an imperfect translation – the kind of comparison which deprives its subjects of their context. He was not just a crooner, but a political scientist, one of the first TV producers and presenters, a vocal critic of the post-Revolution regime, and perhaps a gay icon.

So well-informed, Things Hidden transforms complex political theory, epistemology, and history in simpler terms, accessible by reference to contemporary society. Take Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, which speaks to the invisible labour – from Costa Rica to Kyrgyzstan – behind the internet. Decolonisation, perhaps even post-colonialism, seems impossible, when imperial hierarchies shape relation between the Global South and North. When powerful individuals are still reduced to being the ‘someone else’ of their own country.

Ben Brockman and Limbic Cinema excel in the set and video design, similarly co-opting the themes under investigation. When Alipoor first scrawls the word ‘subaltern’ with the white pen of an iPad, we’ve no idea how far the production will go. What begins as the black screen, gradually unfolds into an overwhelming set of stages. A podcaster’s flat upstairs. Live music, played in a recording studio below. Panels dripping with endlessly scrolling Wikipedia articles. Arresting archive documentary footage of Iran’s infamous chain killings, shot atop it all.

These layers are overwhelming, impossible to process. To simplify their cognition, perhaps we make reductive, context-lacking comparisons – like the ‘Iranian Tom Jones’. A harrowing blueprint of the singer’s flat closes the performance – and despite knowing more, we still never understand.

Protests continue in Iran after the brutal death of Mahsa Amini. Here, they are contextualised with the country’s 1979 International Women’s Day protests too. Things Hidden comes perfectly timed to make its greatest impact amongst non-Iranian audiences. And for all its sharp criticism, it is hopeful – insofar as it acknowledges that we can ‘choose to be aware of people’.

Having opened in Manchester, and transferred to Battersea, Things Hidden should no doubt move to national and international stages. It deserves nothing less. Its transnational themes will resound with audiences in many diasporas – and those with penchants for podcasts. It is shattering theatre, which shows exactly what art can do.

Words by Jelena Sofronijevic


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