Coming up: Haaf Playt, yet another Dawar Mehmood direction of an Anwar Maqsood play and Grease the Musical, a Nida Butt production of yet another Broadway legend… can the big guns of the theatre scene get any more predictable?Theatre in Pakistan is on the rise, spurred on by a burgeoning group of talented young thespians, an audience that’s willing to pay hefty ticket prices and most importantly, huge sums doled out by corporate sponsors. There’s a play doing the rounds almost every month and yet theatre, for all its razzmatazz and ’100 shows running’ records, is fast slipping into an all-too-convenient rut. From reenactments of famous Broadway musicals to remakes of old local dramas to ‘comedies’ relying on crass transvestite humor to witty political satires and then back to Broadway revamped… we’re going round and round and round. The tickets may be selling for now but how much longer before audiences realize that they’re watching the same formula again and again, repackaged and reproduced? Resisting the temptation of succumbing to these profit-earning formulaic scripts is the National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA). The Academy is in a league of its own with its unique storylines and milieu of talented young student-actors. It’s too bad that NAPA generally prefers to stay low-profile and put out smaller productions while others plunge ahead, putting up billboards across the city and aiming for the spotlight.
Perhaps Islamabad-based Shah Sharahbeel could be credited to be the harbinger of commercial theatre as we know it now. A few decades ago, Sharahbeel put out a steady stream of plays, all reproductions of famous Western scripts, all featuring promising young amateurs with a knack for acting. His ‘musicals’ were limited to a CD with the play’s soundtrack and a great sound system but they still managed to appeal to the youth, if not to all audiences.
It brought on the trend for musicals and out of Sharahbeel’s motley crew of thespians emerged Nida Butt. "How can a musical feature music played out from a CD?" Nida has been known to say. She promptly stepped up the bar with her Made-For-Stage productions, starting off with the glamorous Chicago and following it up with Mamma Mia! – Broadway reenacted but this time, with a live orchestra and on-stage singing. The stage was grandiose, the music flowed effortlessly and even the acting – though not brilliant a la NAPA – was believable.
Other theatre groups quickly joined the fray churning out musicals, comedies and dance-based productions. Plays like Lovengers, CinderJutt, Avanti the Musical and Avanti Returns professed on social media to be running to ‘packed houses’ – a somewhat unbelievable claim considering their inane, repetitive scripts. Mediocre hits, sure, but hardly worth being called all-out successes. And while they may have been fun the first time around, it certainly wasn’t riveting watching the same sort of plays presented over and over again.
Even Nida, with her very genuine love for theatrical glamour and greasepaint, couldn’t resist repetition. To give her credit, she did put out an original Urdu musical, the entertaining Karachi from 2011, and produced smaller non-musicals like Carnage and The Pillowman. However, this January, she’s returning to her original penchant for Broadway. This time, she’s gone a step ahead of her contenders, deciding to do things professionally by obtaining the official copyrights for the John Travolta-Olivia Newton John starrer Grease
Will Grease be a hit? We’re sure it will. Will it have something new to offer? In terms of actors, definitely. Nida tends to switch around her lead characters in order to give novelty and although some of her regular actors are present in the entourage, Grease will feature Ayesha Omer in her first ever major on-stage lead role.
Will it be something that we haven’t ever seen before? Probably not. Nida’s a pro at wielding on-stage magic through her actors, music and smooth, slick dances but she’s done all of this before. It could have been so much more entertaining if she had opted for another original or tried out a new genre like satire or slapstick comedy, perhaps. There is so much more that somebody as talented as Nida Butt can do.
And then there’s Kopykat Productions, spearheaded by self-confessed theatre and old TV drama enthusiast Dawar Mehmood. Dawar’s always been a fan of writer Anwar Maqsood’s scripts and he plunged into theatre with a brilliant Pawnay 14 August last year, penned by the great writer himself, on Dawar’s insistence. It was the kind of theatre that one had never seen in Pakistan before: completely original, peppered with Anwar Maqsood’s typical satirical humor, doling out heavy spurts of nationalism and held together by smooth direction and an extremely talented cast of actors.
The play was a complete winner and immediately lead to further collaborations between Dawar and Anwar Maqsood: a remake of Maqsood’s tongue-in-cheek Aangan Terrha from the ’80′s, the Pawnay sequel Sawa 14 August replete with patriotic poignancy and now, premiering in the coming week, Haaf Playt, a remake of Maqsood’s brilliant teleplay Half Plate that featured the late and great Moin Akhtar.
"These are the classics that paved the way for Pakistani entertainment and it has been my dream to bring them on to stage," Dawar once told Instep. And while we certainly agree with him and there’s no denying Anwar Maqsood’s genius, one wishes Dawar would also delve into other territories. Perhaps Dawar could try a one-off project with another playwright before reverting to the next Anwar Maqsood creation … or even Mr Maqsood could consider occasionally working with other theatre directors, just to keep things fresh. Even Dawar’s troupe of actors – though unbelievably talented – always remains the same.
We’re certainly looking forward to Haaf Playt and chances are, we’ll chortle and applaud our way through it. Kopykat Productions’ plays are still fun but they’re at the risk of getting hackneyed. Ditto for Nida Butt, who’s exceptionally talented but needs to shake things up to show her diversity. As for the other hit and miss thespians, it’s about time a group of libidinous transvestites cease to be their script’s only attempts at humor. It’s also about time they start coming up with good scripts.
Theatre’s resurfaced and we’re loving it … let’s not let it slip into a rut.