This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.
The Taming of the Shrew, Theatre Wallay/Kashf, dir. Haissam Hussain, 25 May 2012 at The Globe, London
By Thea Buckley, Shakespeare Institute
Discussion of Shakespeare’s Shrew inevitably centres on the final, controversial scene, wherein Katherine (the Shrew) publicly declares her wifely obedience to her spouse, Petruchio (the Tamer), in—according to the production—a sincere/rebellious/submissive/ insert adjective speech. But what happens to this love story, if their names are instead Kiran and Rustum, and the speech is made in the Urdu language? Would theirs be a ‘modern’ love match, one wondered, or a ‘traditional’ family arrangement? Would feminism or patriarchy triumph in this Pakistani version? Theatre Wallay’s vibrant spring festival of a production soon answered these questions, upturning and then soaring above such polarized stereotypes, weaving intercultural rhythms that beat in harmonious global tandem.
Haissam Hussain’s and Navid Shahzad’s version followed Shrew’s plot closely, the primary adaptation being to set the play in springtime Pakistan, evoked through costume, music, dance, and Laila Rehman’s set. Before an expectant audience basking in appropriately warm temperatures, Anila Rahim’s painted canvas of a Lahore street formed the stage backdrop; draped from balcony to floor, this depicted a Basant (spring festival) scene including stalls of coloured powders and a rainbow of kites in a cloudless sky. A small star-and-crescent symbol among these overtly indicated the production’s national origins, and excitement at this subcontinental Shakespeare was palpable in the audience, one of whom told me it was a rare production from her homeland. Part of the world’s fourth-largest linguistic population, including one million UK speakers, this heritage pride was further evident when an audience cheer went up at the word ‘Urdu’, spoken by Salman Shahid (later an uproariously funny Baptista Minola/Mian Basheer). Welcoming the audience in English, he took centre-stage in a simple long-sleeved cream and grey kurta outfit, and introduced the orchestra (Mekaal Hasan Band members Babar Khanna, Muhammed Ahsan, Amir Azhar, Rakae Jamil, and Zohaib Hassan, directed by Valerie Kaul). Wearing traditional black, with multicoloured scarves echoing the Basant theme, and mixing the modern guitar with native instruments such as the sitar, flute, dholak (drum) and rubab (lute), the musicians opened with Pakistan’s national anthem, before one started the action by crowing comically like a rooster.
The subsequent stumbling entry of Sly/Ravi (Maria Khan) through the delighted crowd also embodied the rare plot alteration, in the substitution for the drunken male bumpkin of a sober Scheherazade. Resplendent in a glittering, gold-coin-headdress and mirrored, multicoloured garment, she similarly took on multiple roles as she wove the thread of the story in and out of the framework of the play: announcing the opening cast dance; dancing through and involving the crowd; sliding around the stage during the action, becoming alternately beggar/courtesan/ clotheshorse/vendor/clown/ conspirator; and even transforming, with the help of jacket, beard, and boots, into Vincentio/Tajir. This plot device, in the form of omniscient shape-shifter, reflected the transformation in cast identities and personalities; it was further reinforced by their costume changes, running the Lahore gamut from gorgeous to grotesque: curled slippers to plastic sandals, floral shirts to silken shawls. Ravi’s puppet-mastery was dramatically effective in both inverting situations and subverting expectations—one never knew when this submissive elf would become dominant, or her selected spectator become the focus of all eyes. In connecting and transforming the onstage and offstage, foreign and familiar, Ravi functioned as a Puck or Cupid, a playful spring sprite. This directorial choice of female storyteller to drive the narrative action echoed Shrew’s rendering into Urdu by female translators Maryam Pasha, Zaibun Pasha and Aamna Kaul, and was also arguably rooted in producer Susannah Harris-Wilson’s desire for the play to reflect Pakistani culture, especially by giving women characters an equal, independent portrayal.
This theme of transformative female independence was nowhere more overt than in Kiran’s evolution, with Rustum’s abettance, from bird in a gilded cage to free-flying falcon. Echoed through the flight theme, in addition to its visibility in the kite backdrop, this was clearly alluded to in the only onstage décor—two ornate birdcages, one of them with bird atop it. Kiran’s transformation was reflected in her increasingly free movement to music. She entered sullen, silent and earthbound, casually popping peanuts in the doorway while rolling her eyes at her sister’s suitors—admirably played by Ahmed Ali (Tranio/Mir), Osman Khalid Butt (Hortensio/Hasnat), Umer Naru (Lucentio/Qazim) and Mukkarum Kaleem (Gremio/Ghazi ). She later lamented over a kite torn by her spoilt sister Bina (the spitefully simpering Karen David), before becoming the dancing, kite-flying Kiran that Rustum fell in love with at first sight, and the twirling newlywed woman of the house. Hoisted by Rustum onto his lap during the courtship, his shoulders after the wedding, and a pedestal during her final speech, Kiran gradually rose higher in society and her own estimation, accompanied, phoenix-like, by flame-gradient-coloured changes of costume between each landmark scene.
Asked what first attracted her to the role of Kiran, Nadia Jamil animatedly responds, “Nothing—nothing! I just wanted to kill her at first!” She laughs, and continues passionately, “But then, she fell in love…when people fall in love, you know, they do crazy, amazing things…” This Urdu Shrew’s Rustum was clearly also in love. He threatened, but did not follow through, on cuffing Kiran back; a wink and a sigh accompanied and softened his temporary mirroring of her mistreatment of others. In this final scene, Kiran’s speech was, uniquely, a tender team act with Rustum; linking hands, they mimed both the marriage quarrels to be avoided and the tenderness to be encouraged, taking equal turns atop a low table that doubled as a pedestal. Kiran was visibly transformed by her husband’s love, from the woman who had once terrified her sister’s suitors, to one who made her father shed tears of joy. As the cast reunited in a closing dance, the Globe’s Shakespeare Festival audience clapped along in unison. Transcending linguistic distinctions, in its peaceful coexistence and joint triumph of the sexes, Harris-Wilson’s intention was thus successfully realized in performance with partnerships acting the catalysts for societal transformation, or as she put it, “What miracles love hath wrought.”
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Listen below to an interview with one of the actors, recorded by the Globe Education Department:
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