The White Plague — between disease and war

Published November 24, 2023
A scene from the play.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
A scene from the play.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

KARACHI: Readers of world literature in Pakistan would know that writer Karel Capek (1890-1938) was a major influence on the works of popular Czech writers Milan Kundera and Ivan Klima. In fact, Klima has published a book on Capek’s literary achievements in which he claims that no writer in Czechoslovakia and very few elsewhere in the world reacted with such accuracy and passion to the Nazi takeover.

Other writers from the region were also his ardent admirers for the way he depicted the ‘craziness’ in Europe at the time. For this context alone, Bodhicitta Works’ Urdu version of Capek’s satirical play The White Plague,directed by Meher Jaffri, which premiered at the Arts Council on Wednesday evening, is worth highlighting.

The play is set in a volatile atmosphere where a dictatorial leader (Saad Zameer) is ready to wage a war against another country; at the same time a pandemic (leprosy) has caused horror and dread in the entire zone. A certain Dr Galen (Abdul Rahman) has found a cure to the disease. But a pacifist at heart, he only wants to treat the poor and not the rich unless the fascist leader refrains from his violence-prone behaviour. For that to happen, he has to go through and convince the unctuous and self-serving man representing the state machinery Dr Sigelius (Fawad Khan) and affluent individuals such as SethSaab (Samhan Ghazi) who want to perpetuate hostility to keep their businesses going. Naturally, Dr Galen’s intention does not go down well with all of them, especially with the leader. As a result, the disease and the spectre of war wreak havoc…

Urdu version of Czech writer Karel Capek’s satirical play is underway at Arts Council till 26th

The White Plague is a well-meaning effort for which Jaffri should be commended. Has she achieved a remarkable feat? The answer is, no. Despite assembling a cast of National Academy of Performing Arts (Napa) graduates [who should now be called seasoned theatre practitioners] the play could have accomplished more with a little bit, not an awful lot, of editing. There’s a fine line between emphasising a point and trivialising it. The trivialising didn’t happen on Wednesday, but the incessant stress on the bad guys’ love for weapons and violence, and Dr Galen’s understated act as a peace lover diluted the diligence with which the director has put up the drama. She shouldn’t be discouraged by it, for she has oodles of talent.

The venue, too, doesn’t actually serve her purpose well, because the straight-seating arrangement blocks certain parts of the stage from the audience. For example, in the beginning, when a patient is writhing with pain on the floor, the viewers in the third or fourth row of seats can’t see him.

The White Plague will run until Nov 26.

Published in Dawn, November 24th, 2023

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