A Shrew full of laughter

Theatre Wallay’s Shrew began with the dignified but genial Salman Shahid  - the production’s Baptista – announcing that the performance would be in Urdu, and that the musicians were about to play the Pakistani national anthem.  He then added that no one should panic;  it was not a Pakistani takeover.  This joke sounded a keynote for the entire production;  big issues were in circulation but the production asked the audience to choose laughter.  And director Haissam Hussain, aided by translators Aamna Kaul, Zaibun Pasha and Mariam Pasha, made it hard not to laugh, even when the gender politics were a nightmare for western feminism.

The Shrew’s action was relocated to Lahore and some cultural adjustments were made;  Omair Rana’s Rustam/ Petruchio demanded Nadia Jamil’s Kiran/ Katherina hold his hand rather than kiss him in the street.  When Rustam first saw Kiran she was playing, almost dancing, with a Basant kite, and he immediately fell in love with her.  Kiran also made it clear that she found Rustam very attractive.  The taming was then presented as Rustam teaching Kiran playfulness, and how to play act when the men of her society – who found it hard to deal with a strong, educated woman – were around. The culmination of this process – Kiran’s last speech – was a comic tour de force;  as Kiran spoke of the labour husbands undertake for their wives, she reclined lazily whilst Rustam rushed around fanning her;  as she gestured enthusiastically with her arms to illustrate her meaning, Rustam got caught in the crossfire.  And when Kiran offered to place her hand under Rustam’s foot he quickly prevented her.

The framing of this taming was critical in serving up this amiable version of The Shrew;  Maria Khan’s Sly/ Ravi was the story teller and mistress of ceremonies.  Ravi also played a host of minor roles;  a beggar woman, cradling a black rag as if it was her baby;  the priest at Kiran and Rustam’s wedding; the pedant, dressed in walking boots, a tweed jacket and a crazy beard.   Ravi-as-narrator was onstage while Rustam explained his taming plan (‘Thus have I politicly begun my reign’), and this staging decision suggested that Rustam could only proceed if Ravi allowed him to, and that she could interfere and stop him at any stage in the taming process.

Theatre Wallay’s commitment to playfulness, laughter and fun in their Shrew seems particularly timely because one of the main news stories in the British press at the moment is the trial of the parents of Shafilea Ahmed (1986-2003), accused of murdering their daughter because she refused an arranged marriage.  Shafilea Ahmed’s tragic story reads as a brutal taming narrative, and feeds the worst British stereotypes about Pakistani culture.  But Theatre Wallay are reminding audiences – at the Globe and on tour in Oxford, Rotherham and Bradford – that Pakistani culture includes laughter: clowning (Mukkarum Kaleem’s flatulent Gremio/ Ghazi), caricature (Hamza Kamal’s cross-dressed Widow/ Begum), and wit.  And the wittiest moment in the production, for me, came during the bidding war over Bianca/ Bina, as Ghazi and the disguised Tranio/ Mir bragged of their assets.  The entire audience roared with laughter as Mir triumphantly announced – in English -  ‘I have a British passport’.  Nothing that Ghazi could offer would trump that.  But what a political edge there was to that joke.


Professor Elizabeth Schafer
Professor of Drama and Theatre Studies, Department of Drama and Theatre 
Royal Holloway, University of London