NO Shakespearean play sets feminist teeth on edge as much as The Taming of the Shrew. Not surprisingly, this is also the play that fits in most comfortably with the Pakistani social model of male dominance. Indeed, it has all the elements of Bollywood/ Lollywood movies with farce, mistaken identities, and misunderstandings all thrown in.
Given its desi overtones, The Shrew was the logical choice for a Pakistani company, Theatre Wallay, to perform at London’s Globe Theatre on 26 May. As part of the World Shakespeare Festival 2012, 37 countries were invited to stage one of the great playwright’s plays in their own language.
The Globe is an approximate replica of the original roundhouse theatre built in 1599 by a group of actors called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Shakespeare was part of this company, and owned 12.5 per cent of the shares. Closed by the Puritans (long gone in England, but thriving in Pakistan) in 1642, it was pulled down in 1644.
The present structure was completed in 1997 by the American actor and director, Sam Wanamaker, as a labour of love. So accurate is the copy that no steel has been used; the beams and planks are held together with wooden pegs and other 16th century building techniques. The majority of the audience stand in the central space, and a few balconies shelter wooden benches. There are no microphones, no audio equipment, and music is played on traditional instruments. Here, let me say what a fine job in composing the accompanying musical score Mekaal Hasan has done: it is restrained and unobtrusive, and the young composer has resisted the temptation to dominate the dialogue.
The translation by Aamna Kaul, Zaibun Pasha and Mariam Pasha is fresh and fluent, using familiar modern Urdu idioms, rather than attempting to employ stilted language to convey Shakespeare’s words. Clearly, a large number of people have laboured hard to bring this production to London, and deserve much praise for showcasing Pakistani talent in the world capital of theatre.
I recall seeing the film version of the play in Karachi as a student in the Sixties, and marvelling at the acting skills of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton playing Katherina and Petruchio. Taylor’s Katherina was a feisty firebrand, and Burton brought humour and his own brand of machismo to the role.
But times have changed since then, and now the title of the play itself can cause offence to women who rightly object to the notion of being ‘tamed’. So in her closing speech, when Katherina urges her newly married sister Bina (played by Karen David) and another bride (Hamza Kamal) to bend to their husband’s will, I can imagine my feminist friends clenching their fists. The following lines convey the tone and tenor of Katherina’s words:
“Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper/
Thy head, thy sovereign…”
Played with great verve and gusto by Nadia Jamil, Qurat ul Aine (or Kiran as she’s called by her family members) comes to life as somebody trying to break the mould of the traditional, gentle image society demands of Pakistani women. Petruchio (or Rustam, played by Omair Rana) is an adventurer who hears that Kiran’s father (Baptista, or Bashir, played to great effect by Salman Shahid) is willing to give a big dowry to marry off his intransigent daughter, and decides to try his luck. Rustam is from Mianwali, and brings a credible — if stereotyped — Pathan manner and accent to the role.
Urging him on is a bevy of suitors for the younger sister, Bina, who are frustrated because Bashir has announced that he will decide on her match only after Kiran is married. Here follows the usual series of disguises, with each of the three suitors trying to gain an advantage. In one scene, two suitors list their possessions to impress Bashir. Finally, one announces that he has a five-year visa for the UK; this is immediately trumped by the other who claims he has a UK passport.
After a brief and bizarre wedding, Rustam takes Kiran to his home in Mianwali. Here, he instructs his servants not to feed her anything: by starving her, he expects to break her spirit. After days of hunger, Kiran succumbs, and becomes the model wife. They now return to her father’s house in Lahore where Bina has secretly married Qazim (or Lucentio, played by Umer Naru).
The stage is now set for the dénouement where the two sisters, plus the newly married widow, all go offstage, and each of the three husbands wager that their particular spouse will obey his summons. Nobody thinks Rustam, married to the shrew, has a chance. But it is only Kiran who appears, and delivers the speech to the other two, demanding they obey their husbands in all things.
Among the audience were, surprisingly, a large number of Brits. No doubt they were familiar with the play, and had recourse to an electronic board that gave a running synopsis of what was happening. One German sitting close to us had seen all the previous performances by companies from other countries, and said that The Shrew had the biggest audience to date. Hardly surprising, given that London’s large desi crowd had turned up. But he also remarked that of all the performances he had seen, the Pakistani entry was the most traditionally staged.