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Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran

Following the huge success of The Believers Are But Brothers, Javaad Alipoor has returned with a sequel that dissects time, technology and entitlement. Rich Kids focuses on the wealth gap in Iran through the dramatic retelling of Mohammad Hossien Rabbani-Shirazi’s death. It has been converted to a digital format utilising YouTube Live and Instagram, performed by Javaad Alipoor and Peyvand Sadeghian. We caught up with the show as part of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival 2021.

A photo from a live performance of Rich Kids. Javaad stands to the side in a black shirt, looking at a large set of screens arranged in a grid. An image is spread across them, depicting a historical painting. The figures faces have been swapped for the faces of Javaas and Peyvand, like an instagram 'face swap' filter.
Javaad looks great in pastel tones.

Sabrina

I will be honest and say that I had no idea there was such socio-economic disparity in Iran. Learning about it reminded me of the wealth gaps depicted in the South Korean film ‘Parasite’ as well as that in my home city of Hong Kong. I actually knew very little about Iran prior to this, but Rich Kids includes enough information that I could follow the stories of the ‘rich kids’ Hossein and Parivash leading up to their fatal car accident.

Their stories are told via the audience scrolling down through an Instagram account’s heavily filtered photos, taking us backwards from the car crash. The two performers Peyvand and Javaad narrate on YouTube livestream (with captions) while we scroll, so even if you can’t access Instagram you still hear the story progress (or regress?). This way of storytelling made me think for the first time about how scrolling down on Instagram presents us with ‘new’ content, but those are almost always ‘older’ posts. It reinforces one of Rich Kids’ messages about how time is not linear.

Initially I was concerned that there’d be an undercurrent of ‘all rich kids are vapid trash’, but I needn’t have worried. Rich Kids delves beyond the surface stereotypes and discusses why Hossein and Parivash might act the way they did (going back even to the previous generation) – and how their behaviour may not reflect who they are in as straightforward a way as we might assume. All the while, it still showed the obnoxious insensitivity of flaunting one’s excessive, unearned wealth. At one point, we arrived in a kind of fantasy virtual purgatory for ‘rich kids’ who, lacking real purpose in their lives, had instead spent all their time flowing aimlessly along a river of wealth.

I’d actually thought to use the Instagram posts for reference while writing this review – only to have my plans dashed at the end when the performers announced they’d just wiped their whole feed! It was startling but very illustrative of how social media lets you curate and reinvent your image as you desire.

Rich Kids covers so many things I wasn’t expecting, for example the colonial roots of the supposed Anthropocene – an unofficial geological era beginning when humans started seriously affecting the environment. Most of man’s impact on the planet has been the white (and rich) man’s doing…but do they bear the brunt of the fallout? In this respect, it reminds me a little of a book I’m currently reading, ‘The Ones We’re Meant to Find’ by Joan He, where one of the characters wonders why it is that those responsible for dumping toxic waste (especially in secret) are so rarely the ones being poisoned by its aftermath.

When the show began, I was already suffering a headache brought on by too much screen-time – ironically I’d just finished posting on Instagram – and in a way this augmented the dizzying atmosphere that Rich Kids presents its viewers. The end was particularly trippy, with visual effects, sound distortion and filters applied on the performers as they speak – one standout moment was when their faces looked like they were literally melting into the social media void. It was disturbing but also very effective in conveying how virtual/real barriers can disintegrate from too much digital content.
Rich Kids reminds me of how entangled everything is. Of how important history is, whether it’s to reassess linear, logical, colonial perspectives of civilisation in light of archaeological discoveries, or just to better understand how two ‘rich kids’ met such a grisly end. Definitely a thought-provoking show!

A collage of pictures intended to show a rich, illustrious lifestyle. We can see paper money, sunglasses, wine, girls in the sun smilling. In the middle is a cutout of a man in a posh blue suit and half buttoned white shirt. He is holding a phone to his ear and looking off into the distance.
Sorry, Taylor can’t come to the phone right now.

Eve

If you’re reading this review to find out what Rich Kids is about then I’m sorry for you.

I would like to tell you that this performance is about the history of Iran and the “Rich Kids” of Tehran, who seem ignorant to the lives of the real people who live under its current regime. I would like to tell you that it is about climate change and the domestication of the chicken. I would like to tell you that it’s about white colonialism, the death of 50 million Indiginous Americans, and how everyone after 1948 has slightly radioactive teeth.

Yes, it is about all of these things, and many more, but it never lingers upon any of them to dig too deep into the details. The only thing that the narrative seems to keep consistently coming back to is the story of Hossein and his girlfriend, which is constantly intersecting and interrupting with the above topics.

The interactive use of technology during the show makes for an exciting experiment in how to bridge the gap between art and social media. The remote nature also means it’s great for home viewing too. However, the technological basis is also the performance’s major let down.

The narrators start the performance by asking viewers to follow an Instagram account, but they only mention the Instagram handle once and never write it down for viewers to see. After an awkward delay in getting permission to access the account, there was then an issue of only a limited number of posts appearing for some viewers. I was about halfway through, when suddenly the posts I was being asked to scroll down and read were no longer appearing. Luckily, I was watching with someone else who was able to see the rest of the feed, but had I been watching solo then the technological failure would have ruined the entire performance.

I think that the technological let downs are also down to the pace of the performance – not everyone’s phones work at the same speed, so it was sometimes hard to grasp whether I was ahead or behind of where I should be. If the performance was in-person then maybe things would have run smoother, as stewards could have been on stand-by to iron out any ruffles to the digital feathers. Equally, if the performance is going to remain online for the foreseeable future, then emailing out the key links to people an hour before it starts would also be helpful in making the viewers feel more prepared.

Overall, this felt less like a dramatic show and more like a convoluted lecture. One where the professor keeps going “so x happened, and then y happened, but to understand y you need to understand m, and to understand m you need to understand b…” However, you would be mistaken to think this was a dull history or politics lecture, as the speed and breadth of topics covered makes for a thrilling, if intense, watch. You won’t want to take your eyes off either screen.

A still from the digital version of Rich Kids, showing Javaad on the left and Peyvand on the right on a video call. There is a purple distorted filter over them both, like a retro video recording. A play button is positioned in the top left corner of both their screens.
Looks like they’ve had one too many Zoom calls…

Ruby

As the world begins to open again, I began Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls In Tehran whilst simultaneously tidying up plans with friends, reading and replying to emails and scrolling through social media. Sitting down to watch a performance about this exact digital excess surprisingly felt like a refuge and helped to put the overwhelming busyness into context. Exploring consumerism, social media and the anthropocene, Javaad Alipoor and Kirsty Housley look at how society presents themselves and interacts with an uncertain and at times catastrophic current moment. 

The style of performance felt new and unique. Over lockdown I have dabbled in some Youtube theatre, which I enjoyed, but I did not feel that these could compare to actually being in a venue; Rich Kids felt different and exciting; a genre of immersive cyber performance in its own right as opposed to a makeshift adaptation. I have never thought of Instagram in a theatrical context before, but the glow of your phone screen and the intrigue of lives unknown does draw you in in a similar way. The utilisation of the mindless scroll and the use of curated, permanent timelines exposed the otherworldly nature of both Instagram and the way that we present ourselves day to day. Javaad Alipoor and Kirsty Housley have a gift for engaging storytelling through limited means; their use of augmented reality instagram filters created a sense of distortion and chaos. I particularly liked the incorporation of Instagram Live, jumping from computer screen to phone felt similar to frantically jumping from device to device, it also added an interactive element, like I was part of the story myself. On these Instagram Live stories, I could see the rest of the audience in the form of small icons; our own carefully composed self-portraits. 

Theatre like this is important because of how present it is. I would love to see theatre companies adapt to other forms of social media to create drama. The combination of personal digital narratives and deep histories contextualises our excessive lives. I would definitely recommend Rich Kids to anyone wanting to broaden their worldview and see everyday apps in a more creative way.

Find out about future showings of Rich Kids: The History of Shopping Malls in Tehran here.

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