Lale Mansur: The actress who chooses to believe in miracles

She's a committed political activist in Turkey, but Lale Mansur's current passion is for magical theatre
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The Independent Culture

Lale Mansur is anxious. The Turkish film star is experiencing morning-after-first-night nerves. "We didn't even have time for a dress rehearsal. Last night was the dress rehearsal," she says, rolling her eyes theatrically. "And our show is so technical: lighting cues, special effects." She shifts from foot to foot. "Um, shall we go and sit down?"

Formerly Istanbul State Opera and Ballet's longest-serving prima ballerina and an award-winning actress, Lale Mansur is a Big Star. Not that you'd guess it. Her face is devoid of make-up, her slight frame is clad in leather jacket and jeans, and she's wearing trainers that are as huge on her slender ankles as they would be on a child's. She may be an A-list Turkish celebrity, but she's serious, softly spoken and even a little shy. Such a low-key appearance and quiet countenance are all the more surprising when you consider that Mansur is a woman who may face 15 years in prison for civil disobedience.

Along with other high-profile Turkish actors, writers and editors, Mansur belongs to the Initiative for the Freedom of Thought, a collective she formed with her brother to publish essays by imprisoned academics and writers. "And because of this I could be facing a prison sentence of five years for one book and 15 years for another," she explains. "There are several cases. I don't remember the rest!" She smiles the matter away.

This week Turkey's parliament passed new legislation to abolish the death penalty and ease restrictions on Kurdish language rights – subjects Mansur and the initiative have spoken out about. Very much at pains to explain that she is here at the festival as an actress, she may not want to discuss her politics, but this news certainly provokes some enthusiasm. "That's it, no more!" she exclaims. "Capital punishment has gone." In a bid to become a member of the European Union, Turkey is racing to come in line with its human rights conventions, but there is still a long way to go. "If you live in France or England, there are some problems, but the essentials are there," says Mansur. "Turkey deserves a much better democracy than it has."

She refuses to use her political position to further her acting career (not wanting to look as if she's canvassing for work, she has a policy of only attending court cases when she is already involved in a film or play). But she does use her celebrity platform to put more muscle behind her role as activist. "When you live in a country like Turkey, you can't just close your eyes and be happy and live your personal life. I am in a better position to speak out about my thoughts and feelings than most people – I shouldn't hide," she says. "With the book publishing, it was decided that if all of us would put our names to these banned essays. Then the government either has to put us all in prison, or the law has to be changed."

Her story is making something of a hot ticket of Ordinary Miracles, the first Turkish production ever to appear on the Fringe, in which she stars alongside the play's writer, Kubilay QB Tuncer. "QB" is another Turkish success story. A playwright at the age of 18, his debut play was snapped up by the National Theatre of Ankara and ended up touring Europe for four years. Mansur met him three years ago, when he had decided to become a magician. Ordinary Miracles is a two-hander that combines magic and theatre and was, like most things the pair seem to be involved with, a huge hit in Turkey, receiving more media coverage than the entire Istanbul Theatre Festival.

"People think that magic and theatre should be separate things," says QB, who is never far from Mansur's side. "But in order to tell a theatrical story we use magic – visual effects that acts as 'instant miracles', which is how the theatre should be in my opinion. Just like the first time an actor in ancient Greece put on a mask. Magic!"

The play tells the tale of a magician and his assistant. "It's about the illusion of love, because after all, love itself is an illusion," says Mansur. "You fall in love with someone and after a few years you think,'This is not the person I fell for.' But it is. They haven't changed, you just didn't want to see them like that. You create your own illusion."

It's a telling revelation from a woman who gave up her job as a prima ballerina to move to London to be with her husband.

"When my husband decided to move to London for work I was with a psychiatrist for a year to find out who I was and what I wanted from life," she confesses. "What I discovered was that acting – just like dancing – is something I have a passion for. So I went to a school in LA and then returned to Turkey, where for my first film, Midnight Wanderers, I won Best Actress at the Golden Orange awards, the Turkish equivalent of the Baftas."

So will she go back to Istanbul, where the Turkish government continues to try her in her absence? "A few years ago, I was sure I would spend five years in prison, but the details seem to change day to day." She smiles again. "In Turkey you never know what is going to happen next. Once or twice I have been very scared, but this is my life. I can't stop doing what I do."

'Ordinary Miracles': Gateway Theatre (Venue 7), 21.30 (1hr 55min), to 26 August (not 14) (0131 317 3939)