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
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)
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