Maryam Hamidi: 'Theatre needs to give people something they can’t get from Netflix'

Maryam Hamidi’s new play Moonset focuses a group of contemporary teenagers who become fascinated by Scotland’s witch trials, and she says she hopes it can give audiences “that special theatrical thrill” that only comes from live performance. Interview by Joyce McMillan

Somewhere on the outskirts of Paisley, in the year 2023, a 15-year-old girl called Roxy gathers with her three best friends to explore whether the ancient rites of witchcraft offer any answers to the questions that plague their young lives. They’ve been on a school trip to the Paisley witches’ memorial, on the site where three women and two men were hanged and burned in 1697, in what may have been the last executions for witchcraft anywhere in western Europe; their curiosity is aroused, and something in the story speaks to their sense of powerlessness, in confronting the world around them.

This is the starting point for Maryam Hamidi’s new play Moonset, a Citizens’ Theatre production which – with the Citizens’ still closed for rebuilding – will open at the Tron early in February, before touring on to the Traverse; and after 20 years of hard work in and around Scottish theatre, film and television, during which she has also raised her two children, now aged 9 and 6, Hamidi is delighted to see this cherished project reach the stage at last.

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“I think all I’ve ever really wanted is to tell stories,” says Hamidi, who was born in the Iranian city of Isfahan in 1983, but moved to the UK as a toddler with her parents and older brother and sister. “My father came here during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s to study for a PhD, and eventually made his career here. We lived in Essex at first, and then moved up near Manchester; and my mother says I was always a little orator and performer, wanting to entertain people with stories and songs.

Maryam Hamidi in rehearsals for Moonset PIC: Mihaela Bodlovic

“I also think, looking back, that for me the idea of storytelling was a way of navigating my assimilation into British life; stories are a great way of learning, after all. I also loved dancing, and my parents and teachers were always really supportive of my interest in performance and creative arts. In fact, I feel really fearful for young people now, particularly those from immigrant or less privileged backgrounds, that they may no longer be getting the kinds of opportunities in the arts that made all the difference to me, when I was living through these changes.

“Anyway, eventually I joined Cheshire Youth Theatre, which I loved, and in 2001 I won a place at Queen Margaret in Edinburgh to study acting. It was the period when the QM drama department was based in its wonderful Gateway building in Leith Walk, and I just absolutely loved it – although with hindsight, I can see that we tolerated a lot of assumptions about our likely careers as women in theatre that wouldn’t be acceptable now. And I emerged, in 2004, into a Scottish theatre world that was much better funded that in it is today, and that seemed to offer plenty of opportunities.”

Since then, Hamidi has worked as a performer, director and writer for both theatre and the screen; and although she has played major acting roles – for example as Leyla in the BBC’s River City, and one of the three Noras in Stef Smith’s powerful 2019 Citizens’ version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House – she has increasingly found herself drawn to work where she has more influence over the content, and can write and shape the project herself.

When she thinks about the highlights of her career so far, they therefore tend to involve work like her 2008 Arches solo show Chronicles Of Irania, which sought to build bridges between the powerful Iranian storytelling tradition and 21st century female experience, and two short films she created and directed in 2017 and 2021, Bloody Love and Bahar; and, most recently, her 2022 Play, Pie And Pint play The Words, a study of the relationship between a struggling asylum-seeker in Glasgow, and the translator – herself a second-generation migrant – whose version of his words might make or break his chance of staying in Britain.

The cast of Moonset in rehearsals PIC: Mihaela Bodlovic

As an Iranian-born woman who has lived almost all her life in the UK, Hamidi is aware of the powerful tensions surrounding people who live far from their parents or country of origin, while still feeling strongly connected to it; and she is deeply concerned about the current situation in Iran, where young women are rebelling against the regime at huge risk to themselves and their families, and need all possible support from the global community.

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“When it comes to Moonset, though,” says Hamidi, of her latest project, “I’m thinking very much about young women growing up here in Scotland or the UK now, and about their search for power, in themselves and in the world. It’s also about our relationship with the natural world, which is so broken, and yet is still reflected in the cycles of women’s bodies and their lives – so I wanted to explore that, from the point of view of a group of young women who are becoming adults, but not quite yet. I picture big school parties of 15-year-old girls arriving to watch the play, and rustling their sweetie bags, and really being drawn into it, as something that speaks to them.

“But although it’s a play about young women, that I hope they will enjoy, I also want it to be a play for everyone. I just feel that theatre needs to be on fire at the moment, giving audiences something they absolutely can’t get from Netflix or other services at home. Television drama tells stories brilliantly, and I’m hoping to write more for television myself; I love the challenge of it. But the live experience of theatre can draw people into a narrative in ways no other form can rival; and I hope we’ll be giving audiences some of that special theatrical thrill and excitement with this show.”

Moonset is at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, 3-11 February, and the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 16-18 February