Between the societal and the personal

Published November 24, 2022
Artists perform in a play being staged at NAPA.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
Artists perform in a play being staged at NAPA.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

KARACHI: Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman is best known for his play Death and the Maiden adapted into a film by Roman Polanski in 1994. Before we discuss the National Academy of Performing Arts’ (Napa) latest offering, an Urdu adaptation of Dorfman’s Reader directed by — now a seasoned theatre practitioner — Sunil Shankar, a few well documented things must be kept in mind.

Born in Argentina, the author in the early 1970s worked in Chile’s socialist administration, which was toppled in a coup by General Augusto Pinochet. As a result, he went into exile in the US. After that, and post-Pinochet, it was a pretty troublesome period for his country and his writings often depict the state-versus-man tussle but with a slightly different angle. He has been quoted to have said, “Politics in my work is not merely a matter of the state doing terrible things to people, it’s people doing terrible things.”

Reader is an effort in a similar vein which, by the way, is not truly representative of his literary prowess. So it is brave of Shankar to pick that piece.

Urdu adaptation of Reader being run at Napa till 27th

The central character in the story is played by Fawad Khan, who is a staunch believer in the incorruptibility of the written word that he peruses as his duty. When the curtains go up, metaphorically speaking, he is with his coquettish colleague (Bazelah Mustafa). He receives the manuscript of a novel which perturbs him. It actually tells the story of his own life.

During the course of the action, the characters around him, such as his son (Hasan Raza), wife (Kulsoom Aftab) and a government functionary known as Director (Osama Tahir) interchange places in the novel and his real life, blurring the line between, as the cliché goes, fact and fiction.

Here’s the thing. The production involves big Napa names — Fawad, Sunil and Kulsoom. Every time they do something, you expect them to outdo themselves. Sunil, in this writer’s opinion, is arguably one of the best theatre directors that we have in this country who has under his belt a difficult-to-execute play Equus which he helmed with artistic panache and contextual sensibility.

But one has to say with a great deal of sadness that Reader may be his least talked about directorial venture. The production falters on a few counts. First of all, the dialogue oscillates between the stilted and the colloquial. Secondly, the set leaves much to be desired because of inarticulate use of space. Thirdly, Fawad shoulders the major acting burden and does a good job; it’s just that the flakiness of the lines makes the performances on stage come across as woody and predictable.

Finally, it’s been a long, long time since George Orwell’s 1984 gave the world the authoritarian and controlling figure of Big Brother who monitors everything that citizens do and uses a red pencil for the things he deems unfit for society. The dictator trope has become too fuddy-duddy to highlight that idea. There can be other creative ways of dealing with it.

The play will run until Nov 27.

Published in Dawn, November 24th, 2022

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