In the midst of everything that is being banned – books, music, films – the National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA)’s latest offering ‘Reader’ is a play that makes it the most relevant watch. Originally authored by Argentine-Chilean, Ariel Dorfman’s 1995 play was adapted by the seasoned theatre director, Sunil Shanker. Dorfman is considered the 20th century’s most important literary voice, especially as a forceful example of cross-cultural writing. The Urdu adaptation is running at Zia Mohyeddin Theatre at NAPA until 27th November 2022. The play is appropriate for all above the age of 18. You can grab tickets HERE.
With Bluster & Fear – The Play’s Themes Are All Dominated By ‘Censorship’.
The play’s synopsis is definitely intriguing – A censor discovers that the subversive novel he is about to ban is describing his own life and hinting that a terrible fate awaits his son. He must hunt down the author before it comes true’. However, it’s important to ring attention to the play’s theme which revolves around a myriad of sensitive issues, all dominated by ‘censorship’.
Cracking the plot, we find the father-son duo, living in harmony until you start reading the subliminal meanings underlying their relationship, unresolved but compelling. The father is riddled with fear, remorse, and guilt, while the son seems to be grappling with his own despair. All of us struggle with fears, and often they hinder us from achieving our true potential. And this is the running theme of the two-hour-long play, which explores the dilemma of imposing a ban on the novel that reflects the father’s own tragic life, leaving his son with an equally devastating fate. Hidden secrets from the past force the duet to a fourth-wall-breaking culmination. Throughout the play, we experience varying emotions of pain, loss, and regret.
Oscillating between reality and fantasy, the play delved into a world that is presently grappling with the complex nature of censorship. The fact that such artworks can be manipulated by repressive governments and authorities to stifle free expression is almost close to reality, as Pakistanis voiced out their opinion on the recent turbulent release of a movie – Joyland. The global, interconnected internet and ubiquitous social media platforms, smartphones with cameras were supposed to make censorship obsolete. Instead, it is a lot more complicated now.
Osama Tahir, a regular theatrical actor, expands on the same tangent, when he speaks about his role in the Reader, “Reader is a play that’s hardly been performed in the world primarily owing to its sensitive themes. Acting in this play gave me an insight into Sunil’s imagination – how he envisioned the play and how the clever use of stage play can do wonders.”
The play has not been explored much, in general, all over the world so it was quite a feat and a half when the social media posts started running on ‘Reader’ in a country that has been a conundrum of bans. However, Sunil Shanker, the director, shouldered this responsibility for the NAPA Repertory Theatre (NRT) – much to my delight. So why was it chosen? Fawad Khan explains, “We had read the play thoroughly. And we immediately decided that we wanted to do it. We have rehearsed rigorously for more than two months. However, I can safely say that this is one of the toughest characters that I have played in my entire life. So the play was difficult on a whole another level, in terms of content, understanding the character, as well as technical requirements.”
Censorship & Oppression Are Longstanding Traditions In Pakistan
The Urdu adaptation, now being performed at NAPA, was thought-provoking, mindful entertainment. Censorship and oppression are longstanding traditions in Pakistan. Controlled media is a monopoly that ‘Reader’ sought to break. We witness multi-layered censorship – thoughts, ideas, and emotions. The play eventually questions why we keep going through the same vicious circle against the authorities and their controls. The odds are stacked against the entire creative industry. Similarly, the play also interconnects ridiculous asylums, re-education centres, publishing checks, preservation of the forest, and other peripheral elements.
So it has hit the bull’s eye with its release – the right play at the right time, with a complicated, intriguing text. Sunil Shanker elaborates, “The play had a particularly cinematic appeal. It compelled me to question myself as a director, as an actor, as a theatre practitioner, especially when you experience blurring timelines with a bulk of elements delving into the far future; when reality and fiction overlap with each other.”
‘Reader’ at NAPA, brims with established actors such as Kulsoom Aftab (Tania/Sonia), who did a commendable job of playing with immediate change of expressions. “At times, it got traumatizing. But then, isn’t that what actors are supposed to do? Like phoenix? Setting a fire and letting ourselves turn into ashes and then reborn for the next show?” her performance was the highlight of the play as it focused on multi-faceted layers, with liminal and subliminal dialogue and sighs. But if you miss a sigh, you will notice the deficit. Her character required synchronization of sentiments, thoughts, ideology and action – which disturbs all these factors.
Then there was Bazelah Mustafa (Ayeza/Janan), whose performance was compulsive, gripping, and intense even. Osama Tahir (the director) made his strong presence felt. The role of Zain/Jalib Riaz was well-played by Hassan Raza. Fawad Khan fits into the character of Danial Siddiqui/Danish Hussain like a proverbial glove. Naveed Kamal (the Man) deserves special mention for his immaculate dialogue delivery. We hear half-spoken depths in his dialogues: guilt, grief, and love, all conveyed through an outstanding storytelling game. Sunil explains why he chose an ensemble cast, “I needed really brilliant acting chops to understand the complexity of the play. And sensitive topics such as repression, oppression and suppression, and the establishment, are all themes that we evade because we are in constant fear. Having said that, I believe in creative liberty.”
A Definite Must Watch
The spectacular stage mechanics, with illusionistic settings and light design, and elaborate makeup and costume, were the central part that set this play in excellent territory. The cleverly dramatic use of these ensured that the NAPA stage was the seventh character in the play that evoked dark emotions. It was on the spot as the curtains lifted to murky figures with horseheads that are as eerie, and surreal as they could be, the lies and dark secrets of people’s lives. The two revolving stages set parallel to each other were a novelty for theatre in Pakistan and one can safely say that the actors and the technical crew did complete justice to it. It is figuratively translated into two parallel spaces in time and viewpoints that Reader toys with.
However, perfection is a myth that we all aim for. The only qualm I have is the intricate Urdu language with the translation of the play having far greater density and thickness than what the local audiences needed to hear. While Dorfman’s English is itself heavily laden with classic language, the play may have fared slightly better if it toned down on rich cultural and linguistic context, opulent annotations, and accompanying verbose glosses to accommodate the local audiences.
The minute it ends, the actors challenge the audience whether they dare defend the main character of the story. It is then that you are forced to reflect internally in the hope to understand it better but also because this peculiar yet nail-biting tale is over too soon. Much is left inconclusive, much is left with a cemented end – this is partly what makes the play so unsettling and memorable. By and large, Shanker has definitely treaded the territory of a literary masterpiece. The NAPA play has the ability to hold the audience’s attention, rapt, without effort or strain; so much so that we find ourselves leaning in to hold on to every word and gesture. A definite must-watch.