December 16, 2018

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She can relate

RMTC comedy role set in repressive Elizabethan England resonates loudly for Iranian-born actor

Bahareh Yaraghi stars in RMTC's <em>Shakespeare in Love</em>, on now until Nov. 11. (Photo by David Cooper)</p>

Bahareh Yaraghi stars in RMTC's Shakespeare in Love, on now until Nov. 11. (Photo by David Cooper)

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/10/2017 (423 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

From one perspective, the comedy Shakespeare in Love is about how the celebrated playwright beat writer’s block and wrote his masterpiece Romeo and Juliet (necessitating a revamp of his stalled in-progress work Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter) after falling in love.

But look at it through the eyes of its heroine, would-be actress Viola de Lesseps. Then the story, Lee Hall’s adaptation of the screenplay of the 1998 movie by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, tells how one woman prevailed over sexist social strictures to fulfil her ambition of becoming an actor at a time when women were forbidden from occupying the stage alongside men.

Toronto-based actress Bahareh Yaraghi plays Viola in RMTC’s co-production with the Citadel Theatre, and for her, the play has contemporary resonance, even if it is set more than 400 years in the past.

Yaraghi was born in Iran, and emigrated to Canada when she was eight years old. She grew up in Vancouver then moved to Toronto more than a decade ago to fulfil her own acting ambitions. Once she graduated from theatre school at Humber College, Yaraghi’s first big role was playing Juliet in a Toronto production of Romeo and Juliet.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/10/2017 (423 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

From one perspective, the comedy Shakespeare in Love is about how the celebrated playwright beat writer’s block and wrote his masterpiece Romeo and Juliet (necessitating a revamp of his stalled in-progress work Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter) after falling in love.

But look at it through the eyes of its heroine, would-be actress Viola de Lesseps. Then the story, Lee Hall’s adaptation of the screenplay of the 1998 movie by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, tells how one woman prevailed over sexist social strictures to fulfil her ambition of becoming an actor at a time when women were forbidden from occupying the stage alongside men.

“I have this line, confessing to the rest of the company in the rehearsal hall that ‘I just wanted to be an actor.’ Every time I say that, I feel like it’s a Bahareh thing in Iran — me in a room full of people saying: ‘You can’t be an actor.’"

Toronto-based actress Bahareh Yaraghi plays Viola in RMTC’s co-production with the Citadel Theatre, and for her, the play has contemporary resonance, even if it is set more than 400 years in the past. 

Yaraghi was born in Iran, and emigrated to Canada when she was eight years old. She grew up in Vancouver then moved to Toronto more than a decade ago to fulfil her own acting ambitions. Once she graduated from theatre school at Humber College, Yaraghi’s first big role was playing Juliet in a Toronto production of Romeo and Juliet.

"I had no idea what I was doing," she says of her work then.

But in a way, taking on the role of Viola hit her where she lived — or where she used to live — because the gender divide in post-revolutionary Iran isn’t all that different from the way it was in Elizabethan England.

(If you don’t believe that, check out the 2006 Iranian film Offside, about a girl who disguises herself as a boy to see a World Cup qualifying soccer match between Iran and Bahrain because women aren’t allowed in sports stadiums. You couldn’t have seen it in Iran, of course: it was banned.)

"Even to this day, women aren’t allowed to do what they want in that country," she says.

"I have this line, confessing to the rest of the company in the rehearsal hall that ‘I just wanted to be an actor.’" she says. "Every time I say that, I feel like it’s a Bahareh thing in Iran — me in a room full of people saying: ‘You can’t be an actor.’

Yaraghi says the fight over who gets to tell the story and who gets to be on stage all play a part.

"It’s never a conscious choice to look at it through that lens but it’s part of who I am, and Iran is my blood, so no matter what story I’m telling, it always resonates from that part of me, regardless," she says. "In terms of playing Viola, someone who is in love with the stage and wanting to be on that stage, and being forbidden to do so, absolutely, it plays a part in the role that I’m playing."

Andrew Chown (left) as playwright William Shakespeare and Bahareh Yaragi as Viola de Lesseps / Thomas Kent. (Photo by David Cooper)</p>

Andrew Chown (left) as playwright William Shakespeare and Bahareh Yaragi as Viola de Lesseps / Thomas Kent. (Photo by David Cooper)

Even Viola’s plunge into the strange world of theatre was a dynamic Yaraghi could appreciate personally. After all, she is one of the few Toronto actors in a cast assembled largely from the ranks of Edmonton actors affiliated with Citadel, as well as Winnipeg actors drawn from the professional ranks of RMTC.

Out of the cast of 20 Yaraghi didn’t know a single soul — something the actress had never experienced before — but everyone got along really great right from the start.

"It’s kind of the nature of the piece, the chaos and the messiness of it brought us all together really fast," she says. "And to be honest, as Bahareh, I was trying to pick up what I could from every single actor because the room is filled with so much talent and comedic chops. I was in awe the way Viola is in awe with actors that she sees on stage and wanting to be a part of it."

At least Yaraghi didn’t have any difficulty playing Viola’s masculine persona, ‘Thomas Kent.’ In fact, she found it a comparative breeze.

"The funny part is that I felt so much more as Viola playing Thomas Kent than I did as Viola, being in Viola’s beautiful dresses," she says. "I couldn’t understand why I felt uncomfortable in the scenes in which I was playing Viola in her dresses."

Being in a restrictive large dress changed how the actress walked and how she talked. It made her walk a little bit like a princess, she says.

Compelled to examine that, Bahareh "realized that it’s because she’s fighting against those dresses.

"She doesn’t actually want to be wearing these dresses," she says. "She wants the freedom she has in Thomas Kent’s costume."

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca  

Twitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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