sun 21/09/2014

The House of Bilquis Bibi, Hampstead Theatre | Theatre reviews, news & interviews

The House of Bilquis Bibi, Hampstead Theatre

Tamasha Theatre's Pakistani take on Lorca may be for Asians only

Ila Arun as Bilquis: Tamasha transports Lorca's matriarch to rural, modern-day Pakistan - with mixed resultsPhotograph Robert Day/Hampstead Theatre

What makes a good piece of theatre? Is it the atmosphere generated? Is it the acting? Or is it the ability to communicate ideas clearly? I don’t mind if sometimes I can’t hear or understand words. In the past, I have been overwhelmed by Polish versions of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. I have watched open-mouthed at Kabuki without surtitles and when Federico Garcia Lorca’s Yerma was first seen in this country, in Peter Daubeny’s World Theatre seasons, back in the Sixties, you hardly needed to understand Spanish to be so desperately moved by the sense of yearning emanating from a production played out on a giant trampoline that looked like an enormous cat’s cradle. Lorca, it turns out, is the chosen author for a new production that has its own issues.

Tamasha, the company set up by Sudha Bhuchar and Kristine Landon-Smith to tell the stories and emotional hinterland of the people of Asia and its diaspora now living in the United Kingdom, is celebrating 21 years of activity. And have they had some tales to tell - from early shows like Untouchable (1989), adapted from Mulk Raj Anand’s novel, to Ayub Khan Din’s acclaimed and piercingly funny East is East (1996), charting inter-marriage British style, to the bloody history of India-Pakistan partition in A Tainted Dawn (1997) and, latterly, Asian versions of such cultural phenomena as Fourteen Songs, Two Weddings and a Funeral (1998/2000) and Strictly Dandia (2003). Bhuchar and Landon-Smith have won their own place in the sun and only last month received a prestigious First Women Award (patron: Sarah Brown) for their work with emerging British Asian artists.

So it pains me to report that their version of Lorca’s great 1935 classic, The House of Bernarda Alba, which opened last night at Hampstead before embarking on a nationwide tour, does them less than justice.

Firmly rooted within Lorca's own Andalusian community, the play nonetheless lends itself to all kinds of cultural transplants, given the strength of his vision and its universality. I’ve seen a few, including one that moved events to a Caribbean community. Bhuchar’s adaptation takes Lorca’s tale of religious conformity, repressed sexuality and control and places it in rural but modern-day Pakistan, complete with mobile phones, Skype and burgeoning business enterprise.

There, five daughters, kept under lock and key by their widowed matriarch of a mother, renamed here as Bilquis Bibi (roughly translated as the Queen of Sheba), are subject still to some very old-fashioned and cruel diktats regarding their place in society. It's not hard to extrapolate Lorca’s message of freedom from political oppression at the time of the Spanish Civil War, but here the metaphor can be seen as a powerful expression of women’s liberation and their right to fulfil their destinies in a strictly controlled Muslim society.

Tamasha’s production starts well enough. Sue Mayes’ design, with the composer Felix Cross’s wailing prayer calls, set just the right tone of a devout household imprisoned behind elegant lattice and trellis screens. If we can’t exactly feel the heat, we can at least bathe in the ochres and pale yellows of a late Asian afternoon and evening.

But the production soon falls victim to the very authenticity with which Bhuchar and Landon-Smith lovingly coat their progeny. White mourning sheets are ritualistically laid, long-serving female servants come and go sweeping floors and clearing tables while the five daughters lounge, bicker and chafe against their imposed restriction, the centre of their antagonism being the engagement of the oldest – and plainest – daughter to a returning villager who has made his fortune in America.

The play is so much about sexuality, freedom and the intricacies of how they are – or are not - then played out between the mother and daughters that to get its full measure, dialogue and delivery must be clear and audible. Unfortunately, neither is sufficiently forthcoming. Landon-Smith as director has opted for a style of naturalism and heavily accented Asian English that, whilst creating a convincing atmosphere, leaves the spoken words almost incomprehensible except to those who are culturally immersed.

In a strange, paradoxical way, the production has become a case of cultural apartheid; those with some degree of Pakistani culture will surely find the experience rewarding. And though it may sound contrary, I also applaud Bhuchar and Landon-Smith for their uncompromising stand. They have made few concessions, perhaps too few for some, preferring to opt instead for maximum cultural authenticity and truth in appearance, custom and vocabulary.

In the programme, Bhuchar stresses how much she has drawn on her own background and storehouse of memories as an Indian Punjabi brought up in Tanzania, post-colonial India, Norfolk and London. So much of Tamasha’s work has been dedicated to uncovering stories hitherto untold and ways of being that have proved elucidating and revelatory, particularly for non-Asian British audiences.

Their House of Bernarda Alba removes the veil from a world of which most of us have little or no knowledge. It gives us clues in ambience and feeling. The shame is that the weft and mesh that form the heart of this great play remain so hidden from many of us that we are lost to its deeper mysteries or terrain. That is a real tragedy.

  • The House of Bilquis Bibi runs at Hampstead to 14 August; thereafter to the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry (7-11 Sept); Harrogate Theatre, Harrogate (14-18 Sept) and Coliseum Theatre, Oldham (28 Sept-2 Oct)
The director has opted for a style of naturalism and heavily accented Asian English that leaves the spoken words almost incomprehensible

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this play wasnt flawless but it was def wasnt incomprehensible. i understood everything the actors were saying, except when they started talking in urdu. perhaps the reviewer's inability says more about the circles they move in.
Oh yes Rukhsana, what a coincidence, I felt exactly the same way. I do not know Sudha or Kristine from Tamasha so what I am saying is totally independent and no one asked me to say this. I thought it was a wonderful experience. I could not understand what was being said or I could not see what was going on most of the time but I feel I really experienced Pakistan in Swiss Cottage. I felt the same way when I got the wrong bus to Southall, I thought I'd been transported to the Poonjab. Not knowing what was going on made me feel like the play was really authentic. I would not know what was going on if I were peering through a window of a mud hut in Pakistan, would I? That's what I felt like, a peeping Tom, looking into a strange world. I have heard criticism that Ms Kristine Landon-Smith is not really of Asian origin and therefore how could she know about the Asian community? Why does she incessantly drum out South Asian based work? That's like saying as a white woman I do not know what the Afro Caribbean experience in Britain is when I can argue that I have been to Brixton and I know they like fried chicken. I do not have to be black to know the black experience, do I? No I do not and neither does she! I think there has been a racist conspiracy by the main stream press against Tamasha Theatre Company. Some argue that they are stuck in the 1980's. Well I have news for you haters. The 1980's are back!
I went to see this yesterday and quietly loved it. Asian theatre is as a whole, sadly miss more than hit, and I had no expectations of this. I loved the idea that Lorca's play, so naturally and fittingly, had been adapted to modern day Pakistan and was intrigued with how it would work. I agree with some of the criticism though that the accents were too heavy, even for my bilingual ears. And for once, the Punjabi was more easily understood than the English! I wondered at the decision to not include surtitles. However, the moods and evocation of a modern Pakistan was vivid and left me longing to visit friends caught up in the stifling rise of Wahabbi Islam in a historically liberal Lahore.
Oh really 'Shaun?' The play was not good enoughs for you, eh? Set it in Bradford or some hoky poky town in England? Lesbian daughters and suicide bombers? Not good enough for you. Oh yes. It would be great to see your version would it not? I would like to see you try! I thought the play was the best thing I have seen. Okay. I have only been to the theatre twice and the first time I was playing the chicken in a naivety play. But I stole the show! I think you are jealous. This is the best company and the best play in the world. You do better - go on! Loser.
Rina Fatania was amazing. Talk about owning the stage! I wasn't wowed by the show in general. It made me think of Moira Buffini's Welcome to Thebes - yes, at last a meaty play with a cast of Asian or Black actors, but why not do something that is new and different and cathartic and gut-wrenching. Why do we have to hear the same story over and over again in a way that it's been told many times. Give us the same story - fine - but do it in a way that defamiliarises it. Something. Anything. Shock us. Tease us. Make us look into our souls and see how messy they are. Make the actors do that. It makes me sad to see how much money and effort go into a production like this and a) people leave dissapointed at the interval, or b) at the end. Are people scared of the Arts Council or just of their own souls? It was interesting to hear the directors - in the pre-show panel discussion - talk about how they felt that the more particular a story is the more universal it is. The problem was that the play didn't feel specific - and by setting it in Pakistan allowed us to say: oh, that;'s over there; we're different. What stopped the directors or the playwright from setting the play in Bradford or in Islington? And if one of the daughters had been a lesbian? Or a suicide bomber? Or a physics professor? And what if being locked behind closed doors by the matriarch had been metaphorical? Everything felt literal and predictable. Except Rina Fatania's performance. What a delight.
Mrs Smith -- if you think Christine and Sudha are geniuses, you must a) be an alien from another stellar system b) just woke up from a 21 year slumber c) be Kristine Landon Smith d) be Sudha Bhuchar e) have the brain capacity of a mushy pea! In fact any of those would apply who managed to sit through this crap and say they've just seen theatre!
Look like the Tamasha's publicity dept has been hard at work - posting the above responses as aliases. You are totally right Carole Woddis and all the broadsheet reviewers -- the House of Bilquis Bibi was am dram at its best -- Shame on the Arts council to use taxpayers money to fund this standard of theatre just because Tamasha are asian!!! Hope they are cut -- in fact evaporated !!
Oh do you really think so Jamilla Jamil! I think Sudha and Kristine are geniuses whose talents are suppressed by a racist institution. Tamasha are the best theatre companies in the country and nobody can really deny this if they are the honest. Everyone is just jealous and so are you, 'Jamilla'. The racist white critics are trying to steal the Tamasha money and make it their own. You are the jealous Jamilla. Can you put on a better play than this Bibi one? No, I bet you can't! Long lives Tamasha and may they not have their fundings taken by the racists peoples!
Whilst watching this interesting and highly entertaining adaptation of Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, I began to wonder what had led Sudha Buchar to choose this already extensively adapted piece as the play that coincides with Tamasha’s 21st birthday? It would have been easy to choose something far more commercial and lucrative – but wouldn’t that stray from everything Tamasha has stood for? Lorca attempted to describe all the tension that existed in a bereaved, all female, Spanish family. His plot, together with his cast of characters, was an intricate web of hierarchy, control, corruption, double-dealing and sadness all testing their resilience against a backdrop of hope. In Lorca’s play, the cast of characters all had their specific role and were indeed necessary to the plot. The matriarch figure of Bernarda Alba was herself a woman who’s feeling of bitterness of life’s betrayal were hidden by her stifling control over her 5 daughters. Whilst "Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned / Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned." (The Mourning Bride by William Congreve, 1697), actually, hell hath no fury like a twice married, bitter, widowed mother with 5 unmarried daughters, all of whom have the potential to marry and leave, but have been to date prevented to do so by their own mother! Sudha Bhuchar and Kristine Landon-Smith have managed to convey exactly this in their own interpretation of the character of Bernarda Alba – Bilquis Bibi. To anyone with a few moments spare to research, it will not go unnoticed that the name of the main character, Bilquis Bibi, is not ‘roughly translated’, but is actually the Islamic name for the Queen of Sheba herself. Ila Arun, who plays Bilquis, carries off her character with total control. Her portrayal of Bilquis is fantastic and resonates with power and manipulation. She manages to brand her role of megalomaniac tormentor into the fabric of the play. But Sudha Bhuchar still leaves it to the audience to decide if this is just a woman wielding power or a woman bereft of happiness trying to protect her daughters from the experiences she may have been through. The actresses that play the five daughters do well to reflect their tormentor’s angst in their own characters. Rina Fatania as the servant Bushra does a superbly portrayed a long-suffering but loyal servant in a house full of secrets. The fact that all the other characters owe much to her tact and inside knowledge of the family is obvious as the play unfolds. The set evoked more than enough of a feeling of modern, but traditional Pakistan. The country is one of extreme contrasts, co-existing side by side in the cities as well as towns and villages of a volatile country. Despite the infiltration of mobile phones, satellite television, and all manner of devices which have permeated into the every day lives of most households within Pakistan, there also exist century old customs that have changed little over time. The feudal land owning classes still have a stranglehold over entire stretches of the population – this was entirely fitting to the play and allowed the characters to push against the boundaries in a way that is completely believable. Some may not appreciated the dialogue behind the window screens, but personally I loved the concept. It really gave one a feeling of listening and watching a family that had a very real and private issue going on. We all have a hunger for other people’s ‘goings on’ – watching and listening through the windows of the walled set gave us that feeling of being allowed in. Subtle and very clever. The script does a great job of conveying the issues faced by a traditional, all female family in Pakistan. There is cultural prejudice against ‘women’ only families – whether the interpretation is from inside the family or from society looking on, The House of Bilquis Bibi does well to reflect both views. For me the acid test is always, ‘Would I watch the production again’ – Yes, most definitly! It’s a great play, well written, well cast and creatively directed.
This adaptation of Lorca’s by Sudha Bhuchar evoked a very emotional response in me. True sometimes I could not understand the words but that made me listen harder to what was being imparted and as a consequence I was sometimes deeply moved and intrigued by what was played out in front of me. The play is about big political issues but that night in the theatre it was the private and the personal that waded through to make its emotional point and the very naturalism of the piece highlighted the terrible sense of dislocation, restriction and oppression that the play so successfully explores.
I have enjoyed very much to see this show .I am so happy to live in a mixed society as London and that we could see this sort of show which reveal the hidden terrifying relations and the power of religion in a family .At the end this family could be any where in the world .I am sure we have to see this show again because as any professional in the theatre, me too I know that the artistic detail will change and get better and better after few performances.
I found myself incredibly puzzled by this reviewer's response to this play. Re-setting Lorcas play in contemporary rural Pakistan is an absolutely perfect fit, it pulls off the remarkable feat of both revitalising the old play and creating a new one at the same time, and I can think of very few transpositions that have achieved that. The staging is beautiful in it's simplicity, the acting truthful and moving, and the text is pitch perfect while introducing an element of humour missing in the original. All in all a production to be welcomed.
A simple punter just may be and I haven't defended the play neither have I? Just standing up to a misguided tide of vitriol and unfairness surrounding this piece of work and beyond... especially when such vitriol tries to pass itself off as 'intelligent debate'...lol. Having the foresight to know how these things can escalate I am now standing down. Have a good day!
My anonymous identity. How do you know that? Maybe you are judging others by your own low standards? It's obvious to me that a simple punter would not be so defensive in defending this dire play...
Jamilla, why is what you said a mini review or a critique? yours is nowhere near a review as other critics have done. Yours is just a reaction on a blog behind an anonymous identity. So, please don't align yourself with the transparency and detail others have provided, positive or negative. This is why others may be affronted by what you say because you provide no real detail as to why the acting or directing or writing is bad, and then you go on to say the best thing for you was getting drunk in the bar! No other self-respecting critic has said that. If you want to be taken seriously as you so obviously do... then if that is the impact a mere play that you don't like has on you, then perhaps you need to attend alcoholics anonymous. Once in recovery you may then be able acknowledge your own incoherence, obvious resentments and delusions of grandeur.
Janaki R. To write. "I look forward to your production" reveals your inability to engage in debate. I brought a ticket for the House of Bilquis Bibi. I have the right to express an opinion. Actually, try an internet search (as I just did) and you will see most broadsheet reviewers actually agree with what I said in my mini review. What makes you think I want to produce a play, or do produce plays. This is just a simpleton's way of dismissing genuine critique by trying to turn the opinion into one of professional jealousy. Just because you were impressed does not mean everyone else has to be. Some people like Champagne and some make do with lemonade. You obviously make to with the latter. The play is bad; most people agree. If someone wants to waste their money on watching it then fine. The point of these reviews is to democratise reviewing shows. I am merely exercising my right. I am sorry you seem to be affected by this?
I'm usually of the belief 'each to their own' when it comes to reviews and reactions to theatre, but I've been really taken aback by the unfair and often petty and personal accusations that are being thrown by people at Tamasha and this particular production. I have already seen the show and I was not only impressed, but moved by what I saw. The House of Bernada Alba has been adapted several times over....I was in Hong Kong not too long ago and was surprised to see a Cantonese adaptation! In Tamasha's case, I thought the story and its key issues transferred beautifully to modern-day Pakistan. You could tell that real care and attention to detail had been taken in the writing, the directing and the acting. True, due to the staging, not every word could be heard but not to the extent of detracting from the experience. There are always pros and cons to any artistic decision....while not everyone and everything could always be clearly heard and seen, you really did feel that you were sitting in on a real family. And that, you don't always experience in theatre....it really did feel like you were watching a family of women going about their daily lives in the aftermath of their Father's/Husband's death. And for that, I salute Tamasha and the actresses who created that for us :). P.S: Jamilla....there was nothing amateur about this production. From the set to the costumes to the performance, it was amazing to look at and clearly a LOT of work had gone into it. But seeing as even that didn't meet your standards, perhaps you could do better?? I look forward to seeing your production :)!
What an incoherent, amateurish piece of theatre. Bad writing, bad acting and really bad direction. Having said that, I have to admit , that was the moment when the lights went down and I was able to get drunk at the bar.
I have seen every play staged by Tamasha, and never been disappointed - The House of Bilquis Bibi is no exception. Sudha and Kristine are to be praised for bringing to the stage themes which are often difficult to portray; yet, they do so in a sensitive manner.
My goodness me. I didn't realise how hard-hitting this play was. Having seen various Lorca versions, I was shocked to see how relevant this play was in 2010 as it was in the 1930's. Okay, so there was none of that symbolic cane-breaking of the original, but as the title implies, it's not the original play, it's something different, of a different time. I was so mesmerised by the authenticity of the acting (and by this, I don't mean, authentically sub-continental, please) and how each actor was brave enough to expose something of their soul and teach me something of my humanity. The fine ladies almost didn't seem like they were acting, despite the fact that I have seen a few of them in other productions. Their level of truth on stage was raw and sometimes uncomfortable to observe. When my West Indian friend said that there were so many parallels for her in this play with her own cultural experience growing up, I knew that Kristine Landon-Smith had hit on the universal by being so uncompromisingly specific. Domineering matriarchs don't usually make a good Saturday night out: I couldn't say I 'enjoyed' the production. I would say I was spellbound, moved, challenged, relieved (comically), fascinated by the production. I was totally moved by the actors; my friend and I were talking about the issues that the play raised for hours after in the bar and on the tube home, the performances were nuanced layered (and that is always stunning to watch) and we loved the use of other language(s?) in this play. The response from the audience who (presumably) understood the language was heart-warming. And yes, the play is not without it's comedy, largely through the servant characters and their interaction with those above stairs. Balvinder Sopal's haranguing of the beggar-woman crouching at the door is brilliant as the seemingly never ending tirade of abuse turns quite subtly and masterfully into a private eulogy to the now deceased father, whose picture she addresses throughout. Sudha Bhuchar is at the height of her powers in that small scene, revealing so much of the personal and specific, yet hitting on subtle and universal truths that we could all learn from.
To have seen this play was like a surprise transportation to an unfamiliar door, and to gaze through its keyhole into an even more unfamiliar and (for me) mesmerising atmosphere and activity which I found joyously intriguing. The acting was truly superb, as was the haunting music. I have been to the subContinent a few times decades ago, but never was the social veil lifted for me as it was with this play. I do think, however, that the dialogue would have been more easily followed without the (albeit understandably) accented English. On the other hand, at 74 my hearing is not so hot as it was. My wife, however, being younger than I am, and who revelled in the play, found no impediment in its cadences.
I'm disappointed and disturbed by the level of criticism. Someone writes about British Asian Theatre being 'low level'. It is easy to blame British Asian Theatre, however this debate is wider than Tamasha. It has been well evidenced over the years that the level of growth and development afforded to British Asian theatre is limited by the amount of resources and funding available. British Asian Theatre never started on an equal footing and for those people that have achieved what they have over 21 years they have to be applauded and celebrated. Landon-Smith and Bhuchar have not only contributed to the development of Asian theatre but have also created opportunities (which have been lacking in 'mainstream' theatre) for actors, writers, directors etc. from various minority ethnic backgrounds. I wish them all the best and congratulate them on surviving and growing over the last 21 years. Oh, and I saw The House of Bilquis Bibi and thought it was an enjoyable production.
 Terri mardi Lund... Is hardly an appropriate name!!!!! Assuming you are South Asian... You are hardly showing yourself to have class and reputation you would like to see in British Asian Theatre. Tamasha have just turned 21 and are still going strong, producing excellent work! And if you go back to Lorca's original text, you will learn that the House of Bilquis Bibi is actually a pretty direct translation! There is hardly any difference in the order of events, or emotions or situations the characters find themselves in. One last thing, theatre is a personal and subjective experience and I enjoyed what Tamasha, so masterfully created for their 21st birthday.
Point taken. `Pakistani' is definitely not a lanuage! But in this case the English accents come from characters rooted in both Punjabi and Urdu. In view of that we've changed it to a more generalised description to cover both. That seems the most appropriate way of summarising a slightly complicated actuality. Thanks.
Hmmm... Ms Sally Jones. It's your type of 'worthiness' and patronising assumptions of what is authentic ( I also presume that you are not a South Asian) that keeps British Asian Theatre down on a low level. If more people were honest about what is presented on stage as many have finally been (please read every other 2-3 star review), you would admit that dramatically the play lacked power, depth or understanding of the original text. If you cannot see this, then maybe you are not as tuned into 'good theatrical experience' as you may think. I suggest you go and see some exciting, vibrant theatre. Unfortunately, you will not find it with the current British Asian theatre community.
'pakistani' is not a language
I would like to say that I went to watch the show last night and thought it to be extremely engaging and compelling, even though I could not hear every word. As you so wonderfully put it, with Sudha's writing and Langdon-Smiths vision and direction, the play is uncompromising, It is culturally authentic, true in apperance (as many of the performances are so well observed and detailed), as well as in custom and vocabulary, that I didn't mind so much of the movement between punjabi and English or that it was quiet in places. The show was delicate and beautiful, dramatic yet real. And yes the accents were very strong but surely that added to the notion of creating a very real world which you, applaud, in you article. If you can't hear... You tune your ears in a bit more and listen to and watch the delicately beautiful language all the performers were speaking with one another, physically! It was not that hard. If Langdon-Smith has created this piece with authenticity and a reality we only beg British theatre to express, well then in my eyes she has done her job.

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