The House Of Bilquis Bibi

Published July 27, 2010

Theatre company Tamasha marks its 21st birthday with a powerful drama where class, complicated matters of the heart and the role of women take centre stage as Hampstead theatre is transported to stiflingly hot Pakistan.

Based on the Spanish classic The House Of Bernarda Alba, Sudha Bhuchar has proved that the themes of Federico Garcia Lorca’s play are as relevant in her setting of present day rural Jhang as they were in 1930s rural Spain.

Depressingly, Lorca’s portrayal of the oppression of five sisters fits neatly into Bhuchar’s reinterpretation. Living under the strict rule of their mother Bilquis Bibi after their father’s death, each sister is stifled and lied to in order that Bilquis might control their lives for the benefit of their reputation. Love is rejected for being too frivolous, proposals are denied for being below their social rank and freedom is rejected for being too dangerous.

Although the daughters are allowed to work, they are all as good as trapped within the four walls that are under Bilquis’s tyrannical rule. The only space that is theirs is the small courtyard where a dog continually barks and the girls can breathe fresh air.
When their cousin Pappo arrives from America, Bilquis arranges for him and her eldest daughter Abida to be married. However, the house is turned upside-down when it is revealed that Pappo is visiting more than one daughter after nightfall.

The most unsettling element of Bhuchar’s play is that it feels that it should be set in the 19th century, a period more naturally associated with such female repression. However the five daughters are living in a world of Skype, Facebook and mobile phones. Reading glossy magazines and secretly spending money on La Senza underwear, it is made all the more frightening to realise that these modern communications and luxuries only serve to make them feel more trapped, offering glimpses of what their life could – and arguably should – be.

Even with the threat of terrorist attacks outside their door and her realisation that the men disappearing to America will not find streets paved with gold, Bilquis has no justification for keeping her children under her rule. Cruel, cold and almost inhuman at points, Ila Arun’s portrayal of her is frightening and unemotional.

With an inevitable tragic end lurking around the corner of the set from the very first lines of the play, The House Of Bilquis Bibi offers no solutions and no redemption. But for powerful, thought-provoking drama, Tamasha clearly triumphs every time.

CM