The mother figure has long stood as a central figure in Asian art, literature and cinema. So it comes as little surprise that a dominant matriarch would take centre stage in Tamasha theatre company’s latest production.
Having given us George Khan, the fierce Pakistani patriarch of their hit 1989 play, East Is East, Tamasha’s co-founder/writer Sudha Bhuchar presents the world with his female counterpart in The House of Bilquis Bibi.
Making her UK stage debut is veteran Indian singer and actress Ila Arun who plays the formidable lady in question. As the Pakistani mother of five unmarried daughters (Ghizala Avan, Vineeta Rishi, Shalini Peiris, Mariam Haque and Youkti Patel), Bilquis Bibi rules her house with an iron rod, almost literally. Brandishing her walking stick like a sword she domineers her daughters, each of whom is trying to cope with the death of their father, Bilquis’s second husband.
Stricken with diabetes, her task of managing an all female household in mourning is further aggravated by her senile mother (Indira Joshi) and feisty maid servant, Bushra (the excellent Rina Fatania), on whom she relies on for the administration of life saving medication.
Having agreed for her eldest girl Abida to marry her younger nephew Pappo, with their union comes the hope of love and new life in America. Conveniently turning a blind eye to the forbidden nightly visits Pappo pays to his fiancée’s balcony, it’s not until Bilquis realises that more than one of her daughters is staying awake for him that the real drama kicks in.
A zealous adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s masterpiece, The House of Bernarda Alba, Tamasha’s Bhuchar and co-founder and director Kristine Landon-Smith turn for to their favourite Spanish poet, dramatist and theatre director for inspiration for the third time in their company’s history. Transporting one of his most famous plays from 1930s Spain to modern day Pakistan’s rich Punjab region, The House of Bilquis Bibi tells a personal story of suffocated small town lives with global ties. While the setting may be decades and continents apart, the core story and female characters remain as real and relevant today as they were during Lorca’s time.
It’s thanks to Bhuchar’s passionate writing style that the fiery personalities of Bilquis Bibi, Bushra and her other female servant (Balvinder Sopal) bring to life a world in which traditional and modern Pakistani women bond and clash over their differences. Predominantly in English with a healthy dose of Punjabi, it’s really when Arun and Co. are allowed to spout their venom and opinions in their mother tongue that the play comes to life.
A tad dialogue heavy in places and light on action, things only fall flat when Landon-Smith allows the daughters to be left on the stage alone for too long to mull over their lives. But the discussion of a young woman’s place in modern day Pakistan, a land in which they are expected to be homely while increasingly forced to work and lead their private lives via Skype and Facebook, is an intriguing one.
Performance wise, it’s Arun who steals the show. From the moment she steps on stage she shines as much as she scares as the monstrous mother that is Bilquis Bibi. While her English is refined, Arun delivers her lines better in Punjabi and when suitably riled up. A short rendition from her is worked into the story well and highlights her mesmerising voice and gravity of the situation playing out. Equally mesmerising is Fatania as Bushra, the bulky maid from whose sharp gaze and tongue there is no escape.
While The House of Bilquis Bibi may not be Tamasha’s most ambitious productions, it is one of the most important. Besides giving a platform to a rare all female cast of nine, it also underlines Tamasha’s 21 year history, an amazing body of work and the fact that one of the UK’s most successful Asian theatre companies started life as a project dreamt up by two friends in a small flat in Crouch End. For that Bhuchar and Landon-Smith must be applauded.
The House of Bilquis Bibi premiered in London on July 22.
Visit www.tamasha.org.uk for information on UK tour dates and venues. The play runs until 2nd October 2010.