By Huma Yusuf
KARACHI: What should a writer do with ideas and images that never make it into a published novel? Repurpose them for the stage, of course! At least, that’s what Mohammed Hanif, the acclaimed author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes, has done. ‘The Dictator’s Wife’, which is being staged at the PACC Karachi on June 6 and 7, extends a theme from Hanif’s novel, but is ultimately a separate entity.
An hour-long dramatic monologue, the play creates a portrait of a military dictator’s wife as she looks back on her relationship with her husband as well as his political career on the couple’s thirty-fourth wedding anniversary. As such, attending the play feels like engaging in a long gossip session with a friend who has a twisted sense of humour and an eye for the absurd.
Nimra Bucha in the title role holds the audience’s attention as she goes through several rules that should govern the behaviour of first ladies. Her performance has impressive range — she is coquettish and shrewish, romantic and arrogant, bored and impatient. To vary the momentum of the one-woman show, Bucha deploys what she describes as a “bag of tricks”. During the course of the play, she shakes things up through on-stage costume changes, animated movement across the stage, the frequent use of props such as wigs and dummies, light effects, and even a radio broadcast.
Even without these stage devices, Bucha would succeed in relaying the first lady’s predicament. An early line in the play sums it up: after receiving five thousand roses from her dictatorial husband, the persona points out that her bedroom smells like a “scented coffin”. It becomes clear during the play that she is trapped — weary of playing the role of the domestic goddess, the woman behind the all-important man.
Her only company is the throng of protesters and justice seekers who flock to the presidential house for clemency and advocacy. In her behaviour towards these dejected masses, the first lady resembles a modern-day Marie Antoinette, disinterested and overwhelmed. But as she scoffs at the public, callously labelling them ‘death row dad’ or ‘missing person’s wifeÂ’, we realise she resents them because their grievances continue to give her husband relevance, their needs justify his righteousness. Although this is an important theme, the fact that the script returns to it several times makes it one of the few aspects of the play that drags a bit.
Otherwise, Bucha’s performance sustains energy, especially as she ensures that there are two characters in this one-woman show. Occasionally slipping into army fatigues and fixing her face in a grimace, Bucha channels “himself” — the first lady’s moniker for her husband — through gruff evocations that convey the one-dimensionality of the army general. His misguided earnestness and propensity for twisted logic make for some of the funniest — and most disturbing — moments in the play.
Given that Hanif has scripted the play, there are bits that are more literary than theatrical. That said, the punch lines are brimming with sarcasm and the first lady’s rambles are peppered with astute observations and descriptions that are so on target that they shock or amuse in turn. One only wishes that there were more consistency in the dictator’s wife’s relationship with her husband. In some anecdotes she relates about their interactions, she comes off as naÃ¯ve and submissive; in others, she is sarcastic and dismissive. While this personality range is necessary to make the play lively in the telling, it makes the portrait of the relationship less powerful.
This is not to say that the play lacks poignancy. Indeed, the dÃ©nouement in which intimate details about the dictator’s relationship with his wife are revealed is positively uncomfortable. The moment succeeds because in a play that otherwise comprises rhetorical acrobatics and a strong performance, the script suddenly becomes sparse and Bucha’s acting is understated.
As for staging: it is appropriate that the set is simple since Bucha’s performance is front-and-centre. Her costume, however, seemed incongruous. Clad in a silk blouse, black slacks and pearl necklace, it is clear that Bucha is meant to be a generic first lady from any time, any place. But the plethora of cultural and historical references to Pakistan convince the audience that the play is set in Islamabad, thus making the outfit feel inauthentic.
Ultimately, the play is worth watching because it privileges a woman’s perspective. And if that isn’t enough, there’s the fact that the proceeds from all tickets will be donated towards the relief effort for internally displaced persons.
For multimedia and interviews with Hanif and Bucha, log on to www.dawn.com.