Beyond the Lipstick

London’s latest dragstravaganza

Inspired by a life-changing spell in Tehran, Iran shortly after the Green Uprising of 2010, Lipstick: A Fairy Tale of Iran is billed as a show that merges theatre, lip-sync, vaudeville, boylesque and storytelling – starring Nathan Kiley aka scene drag star Topsie Redfern and Siobhan O’Kelly. Writer/director Sarah Chew is understandably deeply passionate about the subject matter and issues raised within her creation, and this week Jason Reid caught up with Sarah to find out more.

This is a show that is very personal to you. Is it based wholly upon fact?

The show is inspired by the time I spent in Tehran at the time the play is set. It is a story that shares ideas I care passionately about and which I believe to be as authentic a story as I could possibly tell. But it is entirely fiction.

How did a theatre residency in Iran come about?


The annual Fadjr Festival is one of the major theatre and film festivals in the Middle East; it is a festival on a huge scale and the Dramatic Arts Council of Iran is generous in its invitations to foreign guests – invitations which, to my surprise, were not rescinded in the light of the political turbulence that was rocking the country at the time. 

It must have been exciting to be there, but also very scary?

It was actually the second time I’d done theatre work during a conflict: I was in Kenya in 2007 during post-election violence. In Kenya it was more physically scary, as aggression could be sparked extremely quickly and apparently chaotically; protest in Tehran seemed very highly organised.

The emotional effect of the level of surveillance we were under in Tehran was very deep. I was not scared of violence, but I was very scared of breaking laws and customs I did not understand, and of being arrested and disciplined, and I was mentally exhausted by feeling so watchful over my own behaviour at all times. This feeling did not dissipate for many months after I returned, but it took time to acknowledge it existed at all.

What did you make of the art on offer in Tehran?

I can honestly say I saw some of the best theatre I have ever seen in my life there, and had the privilege of meeting and working with incredibly skilled and inspiring artists. The show is inspired by those artists, that work and that time.

Aside from what this show means to you, why do you think this is a story that needs to be told?

I am telling a story about my experience of the lives of women in Iran, and that is a complicated position to be in because I am not from Iran, I don’t speak Farsi, and I was only there briefly. I am very mindful of this in telling the story – I am not sure I or my central character are qualified to tell it.

While I was there I was staggered by the clarity, depth, passion and wit of the feminism I encountered – nothing I had previously read or seen about Iran in any way documented the fierce and courageous women and men fighting for equal rights in a country where a woman is legally worth a quarter of a man. Many of these activists have had their rights to travel rescinded; if they can publish their work at all it is in Farsi and very hard for people here to find. It drives me mad that most people here think a feminist protest in Iran is limited to women putting photos of themselves without their headscarves on Facebook – but I understand it, because access to the work of truly inspiring activists is so hard to find.

So I am telling a story that I feel needs to be told because these lives must be honoured – but I am deeply aware that my telling of it is inevitably flawed. I am fascinated by the ethics and responsibilities of witnessing, and of carrying the word for people unable to do so. I’d love people to come and see it and share in that debate.

Almost ten years have now passed; if you were given the opportunity to return to Iran in a similar capacity, would you?

In a heartbeat. Ironically, because of this show I will probably never get a visa, and even if I did I would potentially put Iranian loved ones at risk, so – at least under this regime I probably never will. But yes, in a heartbeat.

Nathan Kiley (Topsie Redfern)

We have a team of super lovely and talented people on board so we’re having a real giggle in rehearsals and they’re going great. I’m getting to do things that are new and out of my comfort zone, which is scary and challenging but also exciting.

My character, Mark, is a drag queen and together with best friend Orla they are opening a cabaret bar. The story touches on friendship, the struggle of being an artist, the complexity of gay relationships in a city, and the darker side of chem-sex.

As well as singing live, I lip-sync to spoken word which is much harder than I anticipated. I have a new-found respect for lip-sync artists. Also, I have to be naked onstage (I hope this prospect doesn’t put anyone off!) I struggle to get people to see me naked at the best of times!

Lipstick: A Fairy Tale of Iran headlines the Clapham Omnibus 96 Festival, 1 Clapham Common Northside, London SW4 OQW from 26 February – 24 March.