Photos: Fahim Siddiqi/WhiteStar
Photos: Fahim Siddiqi/WhiteStar

The National Academy of Performing Arts (Napa) brought to life the Urdu rendition of perhaps the most popular English drama by William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, a tragedy about two star-crossed lovers, with peripheral comment on life, love, values, traditions, enmity, self-destruction, tolerance, co-existence, ambitions and fears. Directed by maestro thespian Zia Mohyeddin and translated by veteran actor and head of theatre at Napa, Khalid Ahmed, the play was peppered with crème de la crème of the industry.

Napa has previously staged several Urdu translations of Shakespeare by Ahmed, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and King Lear. For many years, the academy has been successfully enacting literary masterpieces with the objective of testing the graduates’ ability to perform a classical play, as well as creating a sense of understanding in the viewership.

Set in Verona, Italy, where the houses of Capulet and Montague are in an age-old vendetta, each of these powerful families commands loyalty of friends and family. The town is ruled by Prince Escalus, who warns the citizens about not tolerating further bloodshed from the opposing factions. Juliet Capulet and Romeo Montague meet at a ball. It is evident that love is a dominant, violent, ecstatic and an overpowering force that supersedes all other values, loyalties and emotions.

The two are determined to be together despite the feud. Romeo is goaded into fighting with Capulet’s cousin Tybalt, who is stabbed and killed. Eventually, Romeo is banished from Verona to Mantua. Meanwhile, Capulet wants Juliet to marry Count Paris (Aqeel Ahmed). She conspires to deceive her family to be with Romeo. The play ends tragically when both the families realise how foolish they have been.

With dramatic dialogue, impeccable transitions, light design, brilliant expressions by actors, passionate romance, violent conflict and plenty of poetry, Napa’s Urdu rendition of William Shakespeare’s classic Romeo and Juliet transports you to the epic beauty of one of the world’s best-loved plays

Possibly the most poetic, tragic and romantic story of two young Italian lovers, Romeo and Juliet is brimmed with unforgettable love poetry, that remains nonpareil till date. But what does a translator do with a text that is focused on its own linguicity? As Urdu has deeply layered and multifaceted elements floating within several liminal spaces, the inclusion of poetry was next to impossible. Ahmed’s stellar translation achieved this feat by including fragments of poetry, and renderings that were too good to leave behind.

The figuratives, symbolism, echoes, etymologies and coinages took on a life of their own, ensuring that the essence is not lost in translation, and keeping the emotive essentials loyal to the original language. Unquestionably intending to transcend boundaries of linguistics and theatre to touch the local audience for wider appeal and outreach, Ahmed captures the power of the subliminal and the subconscious with precision and subtlety to highlight our language’s heritage. It is rather important to maintain the legacy of our language closer to us. Precious few plays are as well-translated and -directed as this one, leading the drama to what could be carefully called a love letter to the Urdu language. Furthermore, needless to say Mohyeddin has fluently crafted the actors in lyrical form. He once again proves his mettle, enacting his part as a director with notable credibility. One can see the Mohyeddin imprint across each movement, language and projection. The play stayed authentic to the English version, with little tweaks and transcriptions for the local audience.

Photos: Fahim Siddiqi/WhiteStar
Photos: Fahim Siddiqi/WhiteStar

Speaking to Icon about Napa’s intention to go forward with theatre that is coming from a literature of Shakespeare, Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde and the likes, the CEO of Napa, Junaid Zuberi says, “Napa is one-of-its-kind academy to impart training and education in the genres of performing arts. This task was given to Zia Mohyeddin saheb to establish the academy and build the faculty to take the endeavours forward. Two important departments were established — theatre arts and music. One of the biggest names in the domain of plays and dramas is Shakespeare. It’s a given that it is taught at Napa, alongside other playwrights. Romeo and Juliet is undoubtedly one of the greatest tragic love stories in history. The actors include our students, faculty members and our alumni. The technical crew is also from Napa. Pakistani talent is enriched with a flair to understand the nuances of Shakespearean works. And because they have studied it as part of their curriculum, for them to rehearse and portray the same was not an alien concept.”

Romeo, played by Ali Sher, a sophomore theatre student at Napa, received positive reception from the audience for his commendable performance along with the impressive performances by Juliet, played by Noreen Gulwani, and other cast members of the play such as Mercutio played by Fawad Khan, a faculty member, with his unending, sarcastic rants and the characters played by the parents. With heartwarming moments and great performances, the couple’s romance and their struggle to stick by each other was portrayed with intricacy and intrigue, layered with sufficient details in the elaborate costumes and sophisticated set. For instance, in the iconic, celebrated balcony scene where Romeo meets Juliet, the set gives a true picture of the Italian architectural landscapes. With simple yet ample stagecraft, as Mohyeddin put it on the play’s flyer, Shakespeare’s rhythmical imagery extricates his verse from that of others. Throughout the play, intermittent attempts are made to infuse trivial humour from Peter (Muhammad Arsalan) using typical tropes to keep the audience engaged.

Talking about the major challenges faced to bring Romeo and Juliet into form, Zuberi says, “We’ve been around for 17 years so we have a pool of actors, directors, script writers and set designers who are trained and working for Napa, which forms a nursery that feeds the industry in a significant manner. So bringing together a team was not a huge challenge. For the director, choosing the characters and finding the right person who fits the glove is an extremely important function. It required a lot of readings, rehearsals and auditions to finalise the cast. Zia saheb, who is a perfectionist and well-known for his attention to detail, demands hard work. So when he is directing a project, one knows that the quality would be nothing short of supreme. A lot of the audience is not familiar with the classic Shakespearean English, so the translation was another challenge that we had to sail through, and Khalid saheb has done an outstanding job, as the language remains poetic and understandable to resonate with the wider audience. When we attempt to stage a play by world-renowned playwrights belonging to a certain era, we have to ensure the emotive shades and tones do not lose their essence. The story told is as it was originally written, without leaving behind important details. Romeo and Juliet has been done numerous times, and people have cemented its imagery in their minds. So the cast, actors’ delivery, language, lighting, music and costumes had to represent the era. We want the classics to be presented in a manner that will appeal to the broader circle of audience. At the same time, everything remained uncompromising.”

With dramatic dialogue, impeccable transitions, light design, brilliant expressions by actors, passionate romance, violent conflict, and plenty of poetry, the play will transport you to the epic beauty of one of the world’s best-loved plays, lending the production a richness that is a rarity to come by. For theatre lovers acquainted with Shakespearean language, form and structure, Romeo and Juliet is a definitive timeless piece.

Published in Dawn, ICON, July 3rd, 2022

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