Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran review – a world of excess

Mark Fisher

WhatsApp pings with a message from my hairdresser. Duolingo sends a reminder. An email lands from a colleague with an interesting link. This is all while watching Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran, a show performed not only via a YouTube livestream but also on Instagram. My domestic information overload matches the play’s vision of a world of excess.

Since its debut in 2019, the dense and dazzling play by Javaad Alipoor and Kirsty Housley has gained in topicality. It starts with the high-speed crash of a Porsche on the boulevards of Tehran and digs back, with archaeological determination, to the roots of consumer capitalism.

Today, after several weeks of clean air and clear skies, when the BBC has invited everyone from Pope Francis to Andy Murray to Rethink the future, the play’s real-life images of bling, hedonism and vacuous consumption stand in starker relief than ever.

Switching from computer monitor to smartphone screen, we scroll through pictures of watches, designer clothes and hotel suites, status symbols for a generation with more wealth than sense of purpose. As chic as they are soulless, these luxuries are a foreboding of the end of days. If this is the apocalypse, say Alipoor and Housley, it wouldn’t be the first one. “Worlds have ended before,” they remind us, pointing to the Aztecs.

With mobile phones in our hands, this world of overconsumption is one we are part of. The script tugs us around the planet to find minerals on one continent, cheap labour on another and us, a willing market, on another still. Then it spins our heads with the thought of geological time; be it in the relatively brief history of human beings or the sedimentary layers of polystyrene cups we’ll leave in our wake.

Just as we go back in time when we scroll through an Instagram feed, so Rich Kids tells its story in reverse, effect before cause, from cocaine-fuelled car crash to revolution, dictatorship, imperialism and pre-historic civilisations.

The field of associations is wide and you have to work hard to keep up with the thread, not least because of the barrage of digital information, but the transition to this format works well. In the theatre, you were conscious of the audience making a sometimes clumsy switch in attention from stage to phone (I remember operating my neighbour’s as well as my own); here, the visuals are more smoothly integrated, the phone adding depth of field to the 2D images on the computer. Syncing glitches aside, it remains a provocative snapshot of a world speeding towards a cliff edge.

The online version was commissioned by Battersea Arts Centre as part of its Going Digital series, featuring artists who would have been part of the intended Going Global season. Elsewhere, Swimming Pools: Home Movie, a short film by Sleepwalk Collective, looks gorgeous and sounds intriguing, but is more of a hint of things to come than the finished article. The same might be said of Lucy McCormick’s Life: Live!, a kind of behind-the-scenes pop video that will mean little to anyone unfamiliar with her funny and frightening narcissist persona. As for The Spirit, a trilogy of physical improvisations by Thibault Delferiere, what might have been mesmerising in the moment demands reserves of patience to watch on film but, in the right mood, has a haunting sense of man’s struggle against the odds.

  • Going Digital is available online until 12 July; Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran runs until 1 July.