Theatre | The Taming of the Desi Shrew (Globe to Globe festival)

It was last year (2011) that I heard about the Globe to Globe to festival; the moment I discovered there was to be a play in performed in Urdu, I knew I had to go. Despite studying Shakespeare at various points during my education (is it ever possible to avoid it?!) I’ve never been particularly fond of Renaissance literature; but since it was to be in Urdu, I knew the language would be much more accessible than the flamboyant Shakespearean English. Lucky for me I was already fairly familiar with The Taming of the Shrew, the play selected to be performed by the Pakistani theatre company Theatre Wallay, as I had studied it during my A-Levels.

My first thought on the discovery of the choice of play was “why was this not in Punjabi?”. Those of you that speak it would most probably agree that this would be the perfect Shakespeare play for the Punjabi language! How hilarious would it have been?? My second thought was: of all of the plays, why was Pakistan given the most misogynistic of Shakespeare’s plays to adapt? Perhaps they couldn’t find a play with overtly ‘Islamist’ views? Are there no honour killings in Shakespeare? OK, I’m obviously being a little defensive, but there is much more to Pakistan than just oppressed women (and extremism).

In hindsight, I do understand why they made that choice – essentially, it IS a very Pakistani story: an old man looking for husbands for this two daughters, the eldest still unmarried due to her ill-temper and bad-mouthing, and the younger, sweeter daughter suffering because she cannot marry until her older sister is wed, despite boasting a long queue of suitors. I admit it – the issues discussed in The Taming of the Shrew resonate particularly well with Pakistani culture. But I just didn’t want to see a play that reinforced Western stereotypes about Pakistani women.

Still, I was very excited to be seeing it, especially as I’d never been to The Globe before. We managed to get amazing seats in the upper gallery in the first row of the balcony. The play is set in 1970s Pakistan, I’m assuming during the month of Basant (festival of kites in Lahore) as the simple backdrop of flying kites suggested. The play began with Salman Shahid – who plays the father Mian Bashir (Baptista Minola) – introducing the play, followed by the Pakistan national anthem. Everyone stood to attention, and I would have stood up, only I was terrified of going flying over the railing of the balcony (crazy, I know). The weather was beautiful and absolutely perfect as the rays of the sun streamed in and specks of dust flew in the gentlest breeze, somewhat recreating the heat and atmosphere of Lahore.

Image from Asian Image
Image from Asian Image

What followed was something I hadn’t quite anticipated. Not only was there more fun and frolicking than I had expected, but the adaptation of this play by Shakespeare turned into something playful and surprisingly modern. Kiran (Katherine), played by the awesome Nadia Jamil, is not the shrew of the original play; instead we find a rebellious and independent woman who’s secret singing and graceful dancing suggest an inner longing for love.

When all the suitors of Bina, Kiran’s sister, put together a plan to win Bina (in disguise, of course) by arranging for Rustam to win Kiran’s hand in marriage, Rustam becomes less interested in her beauty and the large dowry promised to him, and more drawn to her boldness and rebellious wit. Kiran makes it quite clear to the audience that she thinks Rustam is pretty hot, but plays along in her usual nonchalance, finding that she actually enjoys bantering with him – which only encourages his wooing, despite her biting words and sharp slaps. Rustam informs Mian Basheer that he wishes to marry his daughter – and so they do. Now, I read The Taming of the Shrew a long time ago, so correct me if I’m wrong, but I do believe this was meant to be a forced marriage. Kiran certainly complains about being forced to marry this stupid man, yet the audience know that no one could have stood in her way had he properly refused to marry Rustam. So, already, the Theatre Wallay have overturned a stereotype of Pakistani culture: forced marriages. And of course, although Qazim wins Mian Basheer over with his British passport(!) from amongst her suitors, ultimately Bina has already made the choice to marry Qazim.

Those familiar with the original play were probably most interested to see the second half of the play where Rustam undertakes the ‘taming’ of his wife, and also Kiran’s “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,/Thy head, thy sovereign” monologue that closes the play. The majority of the friends I attended the play with were not familiar with the play and were pretty shocked at the second half of the performance. So…she becomes tamed and falls in love with him when he offers her food he’s made with his own hands after days of refusing to feed or clothe her? And then not-so-rebellious Kiran makes a speech to all the other wives that they should be obedient if they want to win the love of their husband? Ooookay, then.

Yet, Kiran’s declaration of her love to Rustam was a sweet, Bollywood moment that everyone in the audience showed their appreciation for. And the most telling moment for me was the scene where the husbands bet on which wife would come running first to the call of the their husband to prove their obediance: as much as some were shocked by the misogynistic elements of the play, pretty much everyone in the theatre gave a whooping cheer when the only obedient wife turned out to be our beautiful heroine Kiran. Except one friend next to me who, shocked at the response, could only muster three words: “What the hell?” Was the audience, majority of which where of Pakistani background, condoning this obedience of wives to husbands?

Image from The Arts Desk
Image from The Arts Desk

Not all. The Theatre Wallay may have kept very close to the original play in terms of language and events, but the acting told us otherwise. Kiran is not Shakespeare’s Katherine – rebellious and sharp-witted she may be, but she is a lively character constantly trying to hide a playful smile on her lips, especially in regards to Rustam. And Rustam is no male oppressor – Kiran understands that her relationship with him is fundamentally a playful one, and so she allows him to tame her because she realises it’s actually more of a game. The same goes for when she obeys her husband when he calls her infront of the other husbands: it is just a game in which they are equal participants. And the shocking monologue? Kiran performs it as she tugs and pulls Rustam around the front of the stage, he holds her in his lap, he rubs her feet as she sits, they both take turns standing on the table that is symbolic of a pedestal. Kiran’s speech, then, becomes not one of encouraging subservience, but teaches the other wives that a marriage is about giving and receiving, of respect and appreciation. There doesn’t seem to be much of a transformation in Kiran, but that is because Rustam hasn’t changed her – only taught her that rebellion against him isn’t necessary as he wants her for who she is, but only wants her to accept him as her ‘partner in crime’, so to speak.

Going into the theatre, I was expecting this play to explore everything that is with wrong with Pakistani culture in terms of marriage, but Kiran not only subverts many of the stereotypes, but also challenges the traditional role of a Pakistani wife, a desi “angel in the house”, if you will. At the same time, the play also acknowledged the cultural issues that do exist in Pakistani society, but in a light, breezy way that allowed the audience to have a good laugh at themselves. Overall, I think this play was welcomed as a success because it’s overall attitude was so much more egalitarian than the original, and also because the female characters stood out as much stronger than their male counterparts.

It really was an awesome play. Both Nadia Jamil and Omair Rana did a fantastic job, but there were some other actors that stood out even more to me. Osman Khalid Butt, who played Hasnat (Hortensio), really stole the show with his hilarious energy, preening and sarcasm. The other actor that I loved was Ahmed Ali who plays Qazim’s servant, Mir (Tranio) – his acting was spot on and he quickly became a favourite of the audience. We bumped into Ali after the show outside the theatre and had a photo taken with him. He’s seems like a seriously nice guy, brimming with enthusiasm. Maria Khan played the Sly/Ravi in the play and although she has no real purpose, her presence during each scene really pulled the play together, drawing the audience in and adding to the comedy. What I loved most about the play was the way in which the script never strayed very far from the original, and yet the language was entirely Pakistani. They all had us in stitches.

So you have the love story, the comedy, add to that live musicians with traditional Pakistani instruments, lots of traditional Pakistani songs and plenty of Punjabi dancing: the atmosphere was completely captivating and had the audience clapping away in tune to the music and dancing. The Theatre Wallay transformed this controversial play into a story that celebrates the love and equality shared by a husband and wife, something that perhaps no one had expected from a play about Pakistan.

If you weren’t able to catch the play, there appears to be videos of a performance in Pakistan on YouTube, so be sure to check it out!

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