Sunday, May 27, 2012

Ilaaj-e-Zid-Dastyaab Hae

The following is a review published in the 25th May to 31st May edition of The Friday Times.

I hear The Globe performance was much better received than the Lahore one, for which I am very happy. The reasons I can envisage for that are:

1. That Nadia Jamil's inclusion did indeed make a significant difference to the overall quality of the play (since Omair Rana was excellent anyway, their chemistry will hopefully have transformed the master and slave relationship between the two leads to that between two stubborn equals).

2.  That some slight changes in the way the last speech was delivered may have been incorporated (assuming not too humbly, after this critique was published). A friend informs me the last speech was indeed delivered ironically in the London performance.

3. That the sentimental nostalgia that watching a slice of Pakistan at The Globe evokes in the hearts of expatriate Pakistanis is enough to overlook most everything else.

Curtain call

The Set

Above are two pictures I took from the poor quality camera on my iPod Touch.


Pakistan's contribution to the Globe Theatre's World Shakespeare Festival, an Urdu translation of Taming of the Shrew, has been the subject of much hype in the local press for nearly a year. So, to satiate curious Lahoris and to give themselves a practice run, Theatre Walley staged the play on the 9th of May at Alhamra Hall no. 1 ahead of their 25th of May performance at The Globe.

When I reached the venue at 7pm the audience was being ushered in, to my surprise, without a ticket check at the gate. As it turned out the organizers had waived the entry ticket, blissfully unmindful of those who had paid the Rs. 1500 in advance, because the main lead Nadia Jamil had pulled out due to illness. This conveyed the unfortunate impression that the production prized one television actor's star power above the rest of the team. Add to that the non-functioning air conditioning, and the director's poor form in making an introductory speech, claiming Nadia Jamil's absence had halved the impact of the performance, and the evening started on a sour note, even before a single dialogue had been delivered. I can't be sure if the director's introductory remarks did anything to appease the audience, but I am certain they can't have helped the morale of the replacement leading lady, Maria Khan, or the rest of her cast just as they were about to walk on to the stage.

All this compounded my trepidation at Pakistan staging the most misogynist of Shakespeare's plays. Having suffered through its condensed version at school, I was not quite sure how the production would deal with the play's deep misogyny that George Bernard Shaw once indicted as "altogether disgusting to modern sensibility."

The evening started on a sour note, even before a single dialogue had been delivered

Which beggars the question: how did Pakistan get saddled with Taming of the Shrew? According to the play's director, Susannah Wilson, who attempted to answer this question before the performance began, it was chosen specifically for its 'strong' female lead, perfect for Nadia Jamil. This suggests that participating countries had a say in the decision making process. If true, then Taming of the Shrew is an odd pick against the numerous other options with strong female leads in Shakespeare. Shrew is either considered an aberration in the Shakespeare canon or 'interpreted' as ironic and non-serious. Literary critics, who (much like religious scholars) are adept at explaining away anomalies in revered texts, interpret the world of the play as deliberately unreal. None of these approaches to the play, however, seemed to have made their way to the translators and directors of this particular venture. The 'Induction'- an introductory scene in the original text-is vital to an understanding of the play as heightened fantasy removed from reality. Oddly, this production chose to do away with the Induction, embedding the plot's sexism ever more deeply into the play's texture.

Osman Khalid Butt's antics kept the younger members of the audience particularly entertained

Coming back to the evening. With the director finally off the stage, the curtains parted and revealed an amateurish painting of inner Lahore as backdrop, along with a small cardboard cutout of a truck. This poverty of imagination in production values led me to hope that the minimalism would also manifest itself in more cutting edge ways. But that was not to be. The effect of the captivating beginning, with a slickly choreographed burst of ensemble bhangra, was squandered away for most of the rest of the play. There were nice little flourishes here and there-the incorporation of Indian classical dance movements to narrate certain aspects of Kiran's (Katherina) personality, Mekaal Hasan Band's masterful job with the live score and Osman Khalid Butt's antics that kept the younger members of the audience particularly entertained (their laughs, I suspect, were also owed to memories of Humsafar spoofs).

Omair Rana, seasoned as ever, proved why he is invariably the best bet for a male lead with his stage presence and remarkably authentic Pashto accent, more realistic than veteran actor Salman Shahid's Punjabi one.

All this, however, was not enough to keep a constant stream of people from exiting the hall at various stages during the performance. The removal of the language barrier may have aided in better understanding the plot but it also stripped the play of the lilting rhythms of the iambic pentameter, Shakespeare's sly punning and insights into human nature that elevate his comedies. In the absence of these, the production should have amped up on visual gimmickry or creative direction to stave off the predictability. Unfortunately, it failed to do either.

The last two Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) productions of Taming of the Shrew, in 1978 and 1995, relied on directorial discretion to make the play more palatable to modern audiences. Without interfering with the original text, and using the Induction to their advantage, the RSC situated the 1978 play in the male lead's dream, thus relegating its misogyny to the male fantasy sphere. Whereas in the 1995 RSC version Katherina's controversial last speech advocating the subjugation of women was delivered non-seriously. However, in Pakistan's 2012 incarnation, Kiran delivers this speech with all the righteousness of a Friday sermon. I cannot imagine Nadia Jamil doing it any differently, given that the tone of such a major soliloquy is determined by script writers and directors, not the actors themselves. I, and most people who left the hall disappointed, expected better from the highly regarded and seasoned team of this production.

The biggest measure of a stage play's success is its impact on the audience, and in this 'Ilaaj-e-zid Dastyaab Hai' turned out to be decidedly underwhelming. One can only hope that Ms. Wilson is right and that Jamil adds a pizzazz to the performance that will lift the whole production out of mediocrity when it is taken to the Globe. Otherwise one can only hope that the fact of it being in Urdu will save the day (and faces) of all those involved.


  1. No face-saving was required.

    Having watched 20 resident Globe productions over the past 10 years, along with another 8 international productions this Globe to Globe season, I can safely say that the success of this Urdu production was not due to expat nostalgia, but rather due to the Pakistani team's brilliant work. As it is, a good 50% of the audience here was international - and the cheering was as much from them as from the desis who understood the dialogue. This includes the reception to the final words from 'Kiran' - which were not exactly delivered in an ironic way (she speaks of maintaining peace rather than agreeing with everything her husband says - it's a message of equality so does not really require irony).

    As I haven't seen them perform in Lahore, I don't know what they did so wrong to deserve such a poor review - but I'm sure they can't be blamed for the breakdown of air-conditioning at Alhamra or the lack of ticket-checking.

    It is true that over the years there have been many different interpretations of the text, including an attempt to make all this appear like a dream of a drunken Sly. Personally, I think these guys did one better by turning this into a reality, in which Kiran and Rustam actually fall in love - and the 'subjugation' just becomes a game between them. Nadia and Omair have unbelievable stage chemistry and I think in this story she probably tortures him more than he tortures her, till they both find a perfect playful balance. The misogyny of the original, which we have all hated, has been removed so well that I heard various non-Pakistani members of the audience comment on how this was their favourite Petruchio of all time.

    Also, the writing was widely appreciated here - the iambic pentameter has been replaced by a multi-layered, rich language and hilarious puns galore. I am surprised you missed that. The stripped down sets are pretty much the norm at the Globe - so again, the simple backdrop worked just fine. In fact, had they done away with even that, it wouldn't have made any difference to the audience.

    I will agree with you that 'the biggest measure of a stage play's success is its impact on the audience' and that is probably truest for the Globe stage, where the audience literally participates in the play. The Pakistanis worked the audience like pros. They OWNED that stage. I'm not one for nostalgia or pointless patriotism, but these guys made me prouder than I have been in a while of the country that was once my own.

    It's a shame that these guys either didn't deliver as beautifully in Pakistan - or were not appreciated as they should have been. But they simply could not have asked for a better reaction than what they got from the very diverse and very receptive audience in London. Even the Festival Director said that they have a tough act to follow when the Globe runs its own production of the same play in June - and I really don't think he was exaggerating.

  2. Thank you for your detailed comment, Somaya.

    I stand by what I wrote and though it is entirely my own critique and opinion, of course, I know it to be substantiated by a major portion of the audience in Lahore. One of the sponsors of the play, by the way, told me that my review was 'spot on'.

    Whatever the reception to The Globe performance, the fact remains that the Lahore performance was sub-par. Maria Khan playing Kiran meant her role as the sprite had to be eliminated. I don't know how much of a difference it would have made, but I am trying to make allowances here.

    I have taught (and seen) quite a few plays myself including Shakespeare ones and I can assure you that the play I saw was amateurish by most standards.

    I am also deeply skeptical of the high praise The Guardian etc. have lavished. I know the machinations that go on and the strings that are pulled in order to get good press. The Guardian piece deliberately focuses on Kiran in the earlier half of the play, completely sidestepping the pall the latter half throws on her character. It deliberately refuses to comment on the last scene in which all the men are betting on the level of their wives' obedience, and on the script and the direction that completely throws its weight behind the 'meray aaqa' speech.

  3. A certain Mr.Richard Thomson's comment on Guardian's review of The Globe performance: (copying it here only to feel a little less odd about my reaction, which has begun to seem churlish in the wake of the gushing praise unleashed on the interwebs after the publication of my review). Yes, yes, it is a bit self-indulgent, but it is MY blog):)

    "It's good to have an Urdu speaker do the review. Globe to Globe is playing to two audiences simultaneously: those who understand the words and those who don't. I understood none of the words, none of the one-liners, and visually, the production didn't come off for me. It began with a lively dance but from then on, each time a dance started, it ended almost immediately. The spring Basant festival in Lahore was the background for the play but it was barely used. A street vendor was put into colourful clothes in one scene and Katherine flew a kite a couple of times but that was all I noticed. (Look at the link to Basant in the review and you'll read the festival was banned in Lahore in 2012. Gosh.) The acting was all broad and too traditional-English. It was all too straight. The conflict between Petruchio and Katherine was mild. I didn't believe it. It didn't interest me. It was closer to the tepid tea and shortbread relationship we got from Antony and Cleopatra in the Turkish adaptation than the extraordinary passion between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and conflict between Henry and Catalina of Aragon that we got from Spain. A lot of musicians were brought across from Pakistan (presumably) but they spent most of play sitting, doing nothing. Music was much more effectively integrated into G2G versions of Shakespeare in the Hindi Twelfth Night, the Bangla Tempest, the Korean Dream, the Afghani Comedy of Errors, for example. The stress of the production was on delivering words. With three women doing the translation, the words were obviously very important. It worked for the reviewer but not for me. It wasn't done visually or imaginatively enough. Usually, tone carries across a lot meaning for me in G2G, the most extreme and successful example being the Japanese Coriolanus. It didn't help here. Finally, the production was simply too long. It came in at around 3 hours. The 2 hour playing time limit was just ignored."

  4. In my opinion Sabahat's review is very accurate. My own experience corresponds to it to a very high degree. Especially her discussion regarding the misogyny of the play rings true to my heart.

    I am glad to know that the performance at Globe was better executed and better received.

  5. I saw the play in KC, when Nadia Jamil wasn't ill. It is true that she raises up the level of the play quite a bit -- her chemistry with Omair Rana is pretty amazing and they both come off pretty stubborn, but in a playful way. Maria Khan's role as the sprite was also amazing -- in fact, only the first few minutes of the play were anything to talk about. As the mime, there was this strange contained madness in her that was just amazing to watch.

    However, I agree with you about the play's chauvinism. It was played rather straight, the men betting on their wives' obedience was not even the worst, it was denying the character of Katharine food that infuriated me. From what I've heard, there were also a lot more gags and physical comedy in the workshop version that was subsequently toned down. Osman Khalid Butt shined because he refused to play the character straight. He was very original.

    But yes, the lack of originality of thought while interpreting the play was disappointing. I'm glad someone's giving an honest review rather than just spouting of praises because Pakistan actually did a Shakespeare production that was not half-bad.

  6. I have been watching other Globe to Globe performances at Granted, I cannot have the same experience as watching Ilaj-e-zid at The Globe, which I did on both the 25th and the 26th of May, some technical aspects in which the Lahori production excelled and did far better than the other ones that I have seen so far are glaringly apparent. To mention a few, the use of space, interaction with the audience, choreography ( the Sly clapping her hands and actors moving in a staggered formation with the clap was a particularly brilliant sequence), pausing of a set of actors to transition to a parallel scene and back, were all very skillfully executed. The rendering was as non-misogynist as it could be. Susannah Wilson's use of the Sly was particularly an excellent choice that many productions do not incorporate as a permanent fixture throughout the play in order to strictly stick with the folio text. By being on the stage through the entirety of the play, Maria Khan frames it as a play within the play. By naming the Sly 'Ravi' Susannah cleverly made it clear that what was being shown was a fictional account in which everyone was role-playing. By making Rustam a Pathan, the stereotype of Pathan is invoked that reminds the audience that Rustam is a simpleton, his demands of calling the moon sun, or vice versa, due to his mannerism and his identity as a Pathan come across as whimsical rather than subjugating. Kiran's (Nadia Jamil) response when she gestures to Rustam to confirm from him whether she should call it moon or sun, rendered that exchange without any ambiguity as part of a game in which the two strike a balance where their egos could meet in mutual harmony.

    The entire cast, the young and very talented, and the veterans, appeared in complete command of their roles. Highly animated Hasnaat(Osman Khalid Butt) and Ghazi (Mukarram Kalim) were well balanced by relatively subdued Kazim (Umer Naru) and Mir (Ahmed Ali).

    The national anthem and the azaan as tokens of nationalism and religion, which every Pakistani feels are part of their selfhood, could have been avoided. Art should traverse these boundaries.

    There were enough other cultural markers in the production to identify its geographical and cultural locale.