"Hedonistic" Hedda Gabler banned at Tehran theatre

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iranian authorities have suspended a Tehran theatre’s production of the classic European play Hedda Gabler and set up a body to police cultural affairs in a sign of a new crackdown on the arts.

Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi, chief prosecutor in the Iranian capital, told the semi-official Fars news agency on Wednesday he had summoned theater company members to explain themselves and said a new office to police cultural affairs had been created.

“This play had some problems both conceptually and in the way it was performed,” Dolatabadi said. The ban was imposed before a performance on Tuesday night at the City Theater, where the play had been running since January 5.

Fars, which described the play as “vulgar” and “hedonistic” published photographs of the production in which a man and a woman appear to be on the verge of a kiss -- an outrageous scene in Iran where physical contact between unrelated men and women is banned.

Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s 1890 drama follows the fraught relations between the newly married Hedda, her husband and another man, leading to a tragic finale. It is widely considered a classic and the lead role is coveted by actresses worldwide as one of the most demanding in theater.

“Hedda Gabler, which is adapted from a western play and is based on nihilistic and hedonistic ideas and was performed in a very vulgar and inappropriate way for the public, was stopped,” Fars said.

Dolatabadi announced the creation of a “culture and media” department within the prosecutor’s office. “We should make society’s cultural atmosphere healthy. We will confront any activities that endanger the cultural security of society,” he said.

Iran’s artistic and media activities are already regulated by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance which ensures moral standards are respected.

The creation of such an office by the prosecutor could be the latest sign of a turf war between the various branches of government which in recent months has seen prominent members of the judiciary and parliament criticize various policies of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The ban is also the latest example of the clash between strict Islamic moral norms and a desire by many highly educated Iranians to experience arts from around the world.

Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff has been condemned by many fellow conservatives for speaking out in favor of the arts. Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaie last month criticized “some senior Shi’ite clerics” for saying that music is banned by Islam.

“Some engage so much in worshipping that they actually become oblivious of God,” Mashaie told a gathering of artists in Tehran, according to media reports. “If we raise an objection to what they say they would brand us as blasphemous. The fact is that society’s preferences have changed.”

A parliamentary committee is looking into Mashaie’s comments on a variety of controversial issues, Arman newspaper reported on Tuesday.

Javad Arianmanesh, deputy head of parliament’s cultural committee, told Fars he was sorry members of Ahmadinejad’s hardline government were not taking a firmer stance on the arts.

“Sadly, breaking social rules during the term of a principalist (conservative) government is continuing while the warnings of supporters of the revolution hardly bear any fruit,” he said.

Editing by Philippa Fletcher