Theatre review: Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, Sydney Festival

A cross-cultural collaboration that interrogated the simplification and transmission of knowledge.
‘Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World’. Photo: Wendell Teodoro. A stage set with a single performer standing between two large-scale projection screens. The stage is lit blue.

Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World interrogated the simplification and transmission of knowledge by deconstructing a Wikipedia rabbit hole. Co-written by British playwrights Chris Thorpe and Javaad Alipoor, the technology-driven production dramatised a true crime podcast about the murder of Iranian pop star, Fereydoun Farrokhzad.

Alipoor drew on his personal experience as the Persian-English child of an immigrant to expand upon similar themes explored in his earlier plays, The Believers are But Brothers and Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran, both partly told through social media.

In Alipoor’s opening monologue (styled as a lecture complete with iPad and stylus), he told the audience about Farrokhzad, an Iranian pop and TV sensation who fled to Germany after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and was found murdered in 1992. The murder was never solved.

To explain Farrokhzad’s stardom to the audience, Alipoor described him as ‘Iran’s Tom Jones’. Later, Alipoor returned to, and challenged, the notion of defining a non-Western idea or individual in relation to its Western counterpart. Is comparison a shortcut to knowing? Can we ever truly know something – like how delicious Alipoor’s favourite nougat tastes – without experiencing it for ourselves? Perhaps our knowledge base is ultimately like a Wikipedia page: composed of hyperlinks, generalised sub-headings, citations and cross-references to other source material.

Watching the work truly did feel like frantically flicking between Wikipedia pages. In one moment, Alipoor delivered performative lectures where audience members were lit by house lights and encouraged to use their phones; his more philosophical monologues veered into proselytising. In the next, we relaxed into our seats and watched sombre archival footage of Farrokhzad in Iran. These scenes cut to podcast host Asha Reid in her recording studio, sardonically narrating the true crime podcast, Death Between the Gaps.

Enter Raam Emami. In Iran, Emami is a highly popular exiled musician and podcaster known as King Raam. In Canada, where he lives, he works in a kebab shop. Audiences were introduced to Emami through a video recording projected onto vast vertical screens. Yet, the show later revealed a thrilling moment that none of the audience expected.

The production explicitly stated its theatrical intentions in a way that was simultaneously disarming and entrancing. ‘This show is bridging two worlds. And you love it,’ announced Alipoor halfway through. The podcast’s slogan – ‘the more you know, the more you understand’ – was used to signpost pedagogical moments. The work told the audience, in no uncertain terms: you are here to learn from us and you will question everything.

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Ultimately, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World was a meditation on duality and subalternity (a philosophical term relating to postcolonial power structures). The premise of a murder mystery podcast was simply a narrative device. Through investigating Farrokhzad’s murder, Alipoor challenged us to interrogate the transmission and simplification of knowledge. What does it mean to be an Iranian who is unable to visit Iran? To be a musician celebrated by Iranians and invisible to Canadians?

The genre play was enhanced by Benjamin Brockman’s genius stage and lighting design and Me-Lee Hay’s haunting musical compositions, which formed the theatrical backbone of the production. The result of years of development by Javaad Alipoor Company in partnership with the National Theatre of Parramatta, featuring creatives from the UK, Canada and Australia, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World was a masterclass in cross-cultural collaboration.

Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World
Co-commissioned by HOME, Manchester and National Theatre of Parramatta, Sydney
Writers: Javaad Alipoor with Chris Thorpe
Co-creators: Natalie Diddams and Javaad Alipoor
Dramaturg: Chris Thorpe
Director: Javaad Alipoor
Performers: Javaad Alipoor and Asha Reid with Raam Emami, together with on-stage musician Me-Lee Hay
Set, costume and lighting design: Benjamin Brockman
Composer, music director and live musician: Me-Lee Hay
With music by Raam Emami
Sound design: Simon McCorry
Projection and video design: Limbic Cinema
Additional filming: Tate Creations
Sound specialist: Mike Kingsley

Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World was presented by Sydney Festival at the Sydney Opera House from 19-21 January.

This review is published under the Amplify Collective, an initiative supported by The Walkley Foundation and made possible through funding from the Meta Australian News Fund.

Madeleine is an arts manager and independent producer with a background in law and policy. She has worked on major commercial musicals and is the co-founder of LGBTQIA+ theatre company Fruit Box Theatre in Eora, Sydney. Madeleine has previously written for Reuters, the International Press Institute and the European Journalism Centre.