Dheti Deewaarain: Old world order versus new

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Hajrah Mumtaz

When this play was performed for the very first time at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1902, references to the then Russian Empire’s explosive social tensions had already been cut by the censors. Nevertheless, scuffles broke out among the attendees.

As Andrew Upton, a playwright who adapted the script for the stage in the UK more than 100 years later, put it, “everyone [in the audience] could feel the fabric of their society tearing”.

That feeling of a society pulled beyond the limits of endurance is palpable in the production, Dheti Deewaarain, which opens tonight (Thursday) on the National Academy of the Performing Arts stage in Karachi.

Directed by Zia Mohyeddin, and translated into Urdu by Anwer Azeem, this rendition of Russian writer Maxim Gorky’s first play, The Philistines, cannot help but strike a strong chord in Pakistan. The script was, indeed, chosen by the director simply because of “its relevance to us”.

On the surface, the script documents the disintegration of a family, its members torn apart by the older generation’s loyalty (unthinking kowtowing?) to the old world order, and the young-adult siblings’ dissatisfaction with the way thing are, their yearning towards and yet fear of the change they can scent is coming, and eventually, the manner in which a will that cannot or will not bend will inevitably break.

A few years before the Russian Revolution was to occur — it could not have been predicted with absolute certainty perhaps but conditions were ripe, especially to a Tsarist-regime opponent like Gorky — Vassily Vassily Vich (Khalid Ahmed) runs with iron will his household that comprises his pacifist but ineffectual wife Akulina (Shumaila Taj), his son Peter (Ali Rizvi) who has been expelled from university for engaging in political activities, back-against-the-wall daughter Tanya (Shahbana Hassan), and foster son Neil (Paras Masroor). In the house also are several tenants and the kitchen help.

Vassily Vich is an unbearably offensive old man: in his view, Peter is a ne’er do well ungrateful for all the opportunities and education his father has provided; Tanya sighs about all over the place but refuses to do what she ought, which is get married; Neil is far too modern (Socialist) in his thinking; and so on. In short, no one, he feels, gives age and experience (his own), as well as tradition, the respect they merit; but, it is he who is unable to afford to anyone even the slightest modicum of respect or authenticity.

Behind this inter-generation push-and-pull is the political message: the impotence/inherent self-destructiveness of the old world order, and the (in the playwright’s view) inevitable ascendance of the children of the revolution, with none going unscarred. This theme, as noted, is bound to resonate with Pakistanis, as our society is in a place where the consequences of the sins of those that came before must be shouldered by those that cannot refuse to take the baton.

The Napa production does, on the whole, do justice to such a grand theme. The direction by Mohyeddin, president and CEO of Napa, must be recognised for its technical accuracy and the work put in on diction, presentation and movement. The actors’ work is not just precise but also very economical. Given the oppressive atmosphere that the Russian playwrights are known for, it is easy to err on the side of too much melodrama, and the light hand used here is commendable.

While all the actors turn in competent performances, those of veteran actor Khalid Ahmed, and Napa graduates Paras Masroor and Nazrul Hasan (as the musician tenant Teterev), are noteworthy.

Critics might say that in this age of experimental and abstract theatre, this play has stuck to naturalism: the set by Anjum Ayaz, lights by Uzma Sabeen, and indeed Mohyeddin’s directorial choices, are all perfectly competent, but do not pretend to break any boundaries.

Such critics could take some comfort, perhaps, in the fact that when the play was written, naturalism was still an experimental (and daring) form of theatre, breaking from the overblown dramas that were popular back then to put the ordinary man centre-stage.

Given that this is a story that is ordinary in the Pakistan of today, empathy might dominate.

The play runs from May 14-31 at the National Academy of the Performing Arts.

Hajrah Mumtaz, “Dheti Deewaarain: Old world order versus new,” in Dawn, May 14, 2015. Accessed on May 14, 2015, at: http://www.dawn.com/news/1181789/old-world-order-versus-new

The item above written by Hajrah Mumtaz and published in Dawn on May 14, 2015, is catalogued here in full by Faiz-e-Zabaan for non-profit educational purpose only. Faiz-e-Zabaan neither claims the ownership nor the authorship of this item. The link to the original source accessed on May 14, 2015, is available here. Faiz-e-Zabaan is not responsible for the content of the external websites.

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