Hampstead Theatre, London NW3
Opened 26 July, 2010

Last year, when British-Asian theatre company Tamasha staged their Rajasthani-set musical adaptation of Wuthering Heights, I remarked that the company remained at the forefront of a multicultural artistic approach that is much more than merely worthy but is in fact positively vibrant. To resile from that now, as the company celebrates its 21st birthday, may seem like the stereotypical “build ’em up, knock ’em down” perfidy of a critic. However, I think that the choice of production at this point demonstrates the company’s weaknesses as well as its strengths.

The House Of Bilquis Bibi is co-artistic director Sudha Bhuchar’s adaptation of Lorca’s The House Of Bernarda Alba. Just as Lorca’s play was set in its own present day of 1936 Spain but seemed to portray a much more antiquated, quasi-feudal matriarchal order, so Bhuchar’s version is located in contemporary Jhang in central Pakistan, but feels poised between two worlds. Bilquis’s daughters – forcibly sequestered in the family home by their puritanical mother in prolonged mourning for their father – may use mobile phones and Skype; daughter Sumayyah (Lorca’s Martirio) may secretly mail-order scanty underwear from La Senza in Lahore; but their talk makes clear that they also live in a society in which women are routinely kept under virtual house arrest and where the local mob may seek to carry out an “honour killing” of an adulterous wife. This is the skewed-perspective background to the story of the sisters’ rivalry for the love of an offstage young man and their resistance to their mother’s life-denying tyranny.

So far, so good. The problem is that it goes no further. Such correspondences can easily be inferred from a staging of the original play; what is added by spelling them out? The same air of diligence but ultimate pointlessness hung over the company’s adaptation of Zola’s Thérèse Raquin a few years ago; at least last year’s Wuthering Heights had an added “Bollywood” dimension. Here, Kristine Landon-Smith’s production strikes all the right faithful, tasteful notes (except that the Hampstead’s acoustics combine with characters’ accents to make a significant proportion of the dialogue unintelligible to unaccustomed ears), but ultimately it brings nothing new to the table of Lorca, to that of Tamasha nor of British-Asian drama in general. It is, I’m afraid, merely worthy.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

Return to index of reviews for the year 2010

Return to master reviews index

Return to main theatre page

Return to Shutters homepage