Why Shakespeare is Shakespeare

January 5, 2020

Review of NAPA Repertory Theatre’s exceptional Urdu production of Shakespeare’s tragedy, King Lear

— Photo courtesy of NAPA FB

To some out-of-towners in Karachi during “Decemberistan”, taking time out to watch this brilliant production of King Lear might have felt like going from the ridiculous to the sublime. From the same-old, ridiculous wedding circuit-circus, to the sublime of Shakespeare’s eternal truths about human nature.

An overflowing auditorium, stayed full even after a refreshment break late at night during the busiest time of Karachi’s social calendar. To understand why, we can discuss the genius of Shakespeare, the direction, translation, acting, and production (music, lighting, set and costume design). However, the challenge here would be to decide what was the best part of this relatively long yet equally captivating play?

Let’s start with Shakespeare’s genius. There is a reason why Shakespeare is eternal. Watching quintessentially human emotions on display, one is reminded of the one-man performance/ presentation Why Shakespeare is Shakespeare, by Zia Mohyeddin, the President and CEO of NAPA, who also directed the play.

The egotistical King Lear, who succumbs to yes-men and flattery to his tragic end, reminds one of those narcissistic individuals in society who mistake flattery for loyalty, and sincere concern for impertinence, taking offense where none was intended. These are tragic figures; whose lives are like watching an avoidable train-wreck, following a lifelong pattern of bad decision-making on account of their inability to hear criticism or take sincere advice.

Age does not translate to wisdom. Falling for his two elder daughters’ flattery, the king bequeaths his kingdom to them, while exiling and disowning his youngest and favorite daughter for speaking honestly. He eventually realizes and deeply regrets his mistake and lack of judgment, after being mistreated and humiliated by his conniving elder daughters.

The play and its subplots explore universal themes of the human condition such as familial bonds, loyalty, and the human capacity for forbearance in the face of suffering. It shows the dark, tragic, even catastrophic results of human flaws such as egotism and bad decision-making. Director, Zia Mohyeddin, quotes George Bernard Shaw’s infamous comment on the play and the writer, “No man will ever write a better tragedy than Lear.”

One can always identify characters and identify with characters in Shakespeare’s plays, almost like the character of Miss Marple who identifies the inherent characteristic personality traits of characters in Agatha Christie’s books based on her observation of human nature in general. The tragic figure of King Lear and his materialistic and fawning daughters: Goneril and Regan were played by Khalid Ahmad, Mira Sethi and Shabana Hasan, respectively. Edmund, played with deliciously venomous gusto by Parus Masroor, the illegitimate son of a consistently believable Gloucester (Maisam Naqvi), whose tragedy mirrors that of Lear’s in being gullible and being unable to assess the true characters of his sons: the legitimate Edgar (Nazrul Hasan), and the illegitimate Edmund.

King Lear is one of the most physically demanding of all of Shakespeare’s characters. While one could write pages about the absolutely unforgettable and deeply moving performance by Khalid Ahmad, a few touches of genius must be noted. At the end, he speaks to Cordelia, Natalya Karanchiya, as if speaking to a baby saying “look at her lips”, and ends by repeating it in the way we speak to babies in this part of the world. Khalid Ahmad mentioned that he imagined how he would have referred to her when she was born and said the same to her at her death.

Mohyeddin is to be congratulated for his direction of an excellent cast, a few truly stood out for their exceptional stage presence, controlled body language and impeccable line delivery.

Khalid Ahmad has been able to retain the pathos, the tragedy, the florid language where required, and most importantly the wit and timeless quality of the original.

They included Parus Masroor, whose charismatic Edmund riveted us with his eyes and expressions. Edgar’s Nazrul Islam changed not just his clothes, but his voice and body language to depict himself as a mad beggar, although at times, the hysterical, high pitched tones of the beggar made it difficult to follow the dialogue. Mira Sethi is a revelation! Although Shakespeare is problematic in his treatment of female characters, and does not give them much to explore in terms of character, Mira (and the director, of course) brought some memorable little touches to the despicable character she played, such as a subtle, unexaggerated eye roll when her youngest sister, Cordelia comes to bid her adieu. Fawad Khan as Kent, when disguising himself, changes his way of speaking marvelously by appropriating an accent in Urdu that is believable of his transition from a nobleman to a street goonda or thug. The Fool, Raheel Siddiqui, sang, danced, and quipped himself into our hearts which makes his tragic end even more heart rending. Much of this was supported by Khalid Ahmad’s brilliant script and translation. When the King asks his Fool where his horses are (“Meray ghoray kahaan hain?“), the Fool quips, “Aap kay gadhay tayyar kar rahein hain/ your donkeys (morons) are preparing them!

The production quality stood out not through elegant costumes and visually arresting, almost minimal set design, but also in efficient and smooth scene changes, and the use of lighting, sound and music.

Finally, a few words about the star of the show: the Urdu translation! Khalid Ahmad has been able to retain the pathos, the tragedy, the florid language where required, and most importantly the wit and timeless quality of the original. It was thrilling to recognize the Urdu translations of famous quotes that one memorized in school and college, For example: “ I am more sinned against than sinning” has been beautifully translated as “Mein gunaahgar kam aur gunahgazeedah zyaadah hoon”.

When Regan and Goneril plot against their father, they use the impolite word for father: "baap"  instead of "walid" and it is immediately jarring for its inappropriateness. The word was deliberately used and its impolitesse was in keeping with the daughters’ lack of respect for Lear, and a taste of what was to follow.

According to Artistic Director Zain Ahmed, NAPA Repertory Theatre, founded in 2008 is a platform showcasing the talents of the graduates of the National Academy of Performing Arts, aimed at providing Karachiites with good theatre. Over 50 plays have been performed in the last 12 years, ranging from translations of world classics to contemporary and experimental plays, to original Pakistani works.

One hopes that the NAPA Repertory Theatre is filming these productions for future generations: they can safely list this production of King Lear as one of their best.

The author is an architect and founder of Joy of Urdu

King Lear in Urdu: Why Shakespeare is Shakespeare