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16/06/2022
AS DEAD AS…
ON MY ENTRY INTO THEATRE

 

A reader reminded me that I should mention my brief entrée into Lahore’s theatre scene.

It was early 1967. Plays being performed in Lahore then included Khwaja Mueenuddin’s Mirza Ghalib Bandar Road Par, Naeem Tahir’s Aap ki tareef, Rashid Thanvi’s Khwamkhwa  (starring Qavi), and Government College Dramatic Club's  adaptation Tamasha mere a’ge. A liberal atmosphere left the stage open to professional as well as amateur actors.

The Governor West Pakistan Nawab Amir Kalabagh however ordered that students from Government College Lahore (which had the largest stage and the most active theatre society) should not act in mixed plays.

To circumvent this stricture, a versatile, energetic director Farrukhnigar Aziz drew a small group together to act in Chekhov’s The Seagull at Government College. The play, set in 19th century Russia featured four main characters – the mature novelist Trigorin; his companion an ageing actress named Mme. Arkadina; her highly-strung son Konstanin Treplef, and Nina, the young daughter of a rich landowner. The other six players included Arkadina’s brother Sorin, his staff and the local doctor.

This being the first effort by the group, it named itself The Alpha Players. Funds remained a constraint. The AP struggled within a limited budget, with minimal props, and scavenged for most of the costumes in Lahore’s landa bazaar or rag market.

I had not known Farrukh-apa, but apparently she had spied me cycling on the Mall to and from the Lahore Museum, where I was cataloguing its collection of miniature paintings. She had heard me speak at a function and noticed that my English accent (I had spent thirteen years there) retained its crispness. More significantly for her, I was the only one of her recruits who had seen The Seagull performed in London in 1964. It had the stellar cast of Peter Finch, Peggy Ashcroft, Vanessa Redgrave, and Paul Rogers.    

Having seen that London production, I volunteered to design some of the costumes, arranged the stage props, and soon became the general factotum – procuring advertisements and sponsorship.

The rehearsals spread over 6 weeks. In the evening, the cast would assemble at Farrukh-apa’s commodious house ‘Bait-ul-Aziz’ on Birdwood Road, where they would share a communal dish of biryani, aloo ghosht, or chopsuey. Gradually, a camaraderie developed which amongst a few led to unrequited crushes.

These gatherings were innocent enough, except that one night, an over-solicitous mother phoned to check on her daughter. She overheard some wit in the group shout that her daughter would come to the phone as soon as she could get her clothes on.

The performances in the G.C. auditorium were spread over three days, and then – to our delight – had to be extended into a fourth. Such a warm response was gratifying, especially when we as actors knew that our performances were not always consistent, night to night. We had yet to learn that no matter how often we repeated the same lines on stage, for each audience, that night would be their first night. 

There would be occasional glitches – forgotten lines, audible promptings, props in the wrong place. One particular fiasco – unforgettable even after sixty years – occurred during a crucial scene when the distraught young poet Konstantin had to throw at Nina’s feet the corpse of the seagull he has just shot.

Where in Lahore could one find a dead seagull - every night, over four nights? The best we could do was to paint a stuffed dummy to look like a dead seagull. It seemed passable until Konstantin flung it. Instead of resting, it bounced and bounced, away from Nina.

Naturally, we searched for reviews wherever they were published. Some were generous, others forgiving and indulgent. One by a left-wing intellectual who doubled as a drama critic hoped his ungenerous review had not offended the cast. ‘Why should it?’ a victim replied. ‘Amateur actors must expect amateur critics.’

After The Seagull, this group of Alpha Players disbanded. Shamim Ahmed (Nina) became Shamim Hilaly and now plays grandmotherly roles on television. Fawzia Zarin (Mme. Arkadina) rejoined her ambassador husband.  Agha Ghanzafar (Konstantin) joined the Civil Service. Irshadullah Khan (Sorin) moved to riches in Islamabad. Tehmina Aly (Masha) lives in well-earned affluence in Virginia (U.S.). Khaled Ahmed (Dr. Dorn) left the Foreign Service to become Pakistan’s foremost journalist. M. Taqi (the schoolmaster Medvendenko) retired from the World Bank. And Sheherezade Alam (Paulina) who died recently made a name for herself as a talented ceramicist.

And the hero Trigorin? After one performance, I was introduced to the famous film producer Hafeezullah Hassan. I was ecstatic. He looked at me momentarily, and then in a crestfallen voice murmured: ‘But you were so good-looking … onstage!’

And that was the moment I knew that my career as an actor was stillborn. It was as dead as that stuffed seagull.

 

 

© F. S. AIJAZUDDIN

[DAWN, 16 June 2022]

 

 
16 June 2022
 
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