The National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA) presented ‘Yahudi ki Larki’ in front of a packed auditorium at the Pakistan National Council of the Arts, Islamabad, as part of the National Theatre Festival on Tuesday, 31st October. This classic drama written by Agha Hashr Kashmiri, aka the Shakespeare of India, a legendary writer from the 19th century, has been adapted for stage numerous times. In February 2017, NAPA performed it in Karachi, and perhaps they wanted to give it another chance in front of the hungry audience of the twin cities. Directed by Khalid Ahmed, it took some time for the audience to get settled into the play, but once they did, the pace did not pick up.
Set in ancient Rome, the melodramatic play had elaborate costumes, numerous backdrops, spontaneous singing and dramatic music, all of which conveyed the effort put into the production, but unfortunately didn’t bring it together as a whole. While the production did an impressive job at replicating the Parsi theatrical era from the 1900s; the play at times appeared to be a klutzy jump in time.
The spinoff of a Shakespearean tragedy tells the story of a Roman prince, Marcus, played by Kashif Hussain, and his love for a beautiful Jewish girl, Raheel, played by Marya Saad. Setting aside the social and religious hindrances of that era, Marcus disguises himself as a Jew to win Raheel’s love – an act in which he succeeds. The protagonist managed to act well, doing justice to his role with plenty of grace. Raheel supported him with beauty and class – the chemistry of the duo was well set for the stage.
As soon as the curtains parted, embellishment became a strong part of the play. The music was impactful, but the songs weren’t easy on the ears. The poetry was directed towards an absent niche, but managed to raise a few applauses. The plot was an engaging one, riddled with references to our society, but the drama itself became overbearing. The play did manage to elicit a few good laughs, but mostly focused on the intense romance between the leads.
The rest of the crew delivered emotions at demand, but did not seem very comfortable with their characters. The Roman priest, Brutus, played by Akbar Islam, was the exception and his acting was thoroughly appreciated by the audience. The play took a thought-provoking turn when Raheel was asked by Marcus to choose between love and faith. At such an intense climactic scene and others like it, the element of comic relief was introduced, which did manage to lighten up the mood, but more often than not destroyed the flow of the story.
The comedy was notably provided by the raunchy Sher Khan, played by Farhan Alam, and his wife, Fitna, played by Zarqa Naz, both of whom lie and cheat on each other. The jostling between the two brought comic relief to an otherwise bamboozled audience. The frequent jumps from actors in Roman tunics to the Pathan household were a bit too much to process, especially considering the serious nature of the plot.
The audience was more often than not left with a chin on their fist, baffled by the sudden changes in scenes, characters, narratives, costumes and plots. For instance, the toga party in Rome was rather impulsively replaced with scenes in kurtas, pajamas, ghararas and dupatas. The understanding of the plot twists didn’t require brains, but it did deliver a comprehensive brain-bashing.
When the curtains drew, the play had showcased suffering of people at the hand of faith and love. It showed how religious persecution had haunted societies for ages. It reminisced about anti-Semitism and how the entropy of a society can be initiated. And while the message was simple, the drama surrounding it wasn’t. The play did remind one of the discrimination and persecution of minorities in our own society, showing that our society might not be that different from Rome.
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