If the spoken word isn’t intended to convey a message, does that stop an avid listener from looking for meaning in it? Rarely. Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, which is being staged at the National Academy of Performing Arts (Napa) by N-Cube Arts, revolves around a similar idea. The characters indulge in a cycle of arguments, not because there is something worthy of arguing over, but because they want to hear their own voices.
Mr Smith (Ali Junejo) and Mrs Smith (Romana Haider), a couple hailing from London, are joined by the Martins for dinner. The two families engage in a number of meaningless debates when they are joined by a fire chief (Ameed Riaz) and the Smiths’ maid Mary (Natasha Ejaz), who is also the fire chief’s love interest. With time, their discussion becomes louder and more frivolous, packed with non sequiturs and banter.
Natasha Ejaz as Mary, Momin Zafar as Mr Martin
Junejo, who is also the director of play, enters the stage before the play starts and gives the audience instructions to turn off their cell phones. He is dressed up as Mr Smith, but speaks as the director and ends his comments with a critical message, which is “not to expect a story [from the play].”
From the beginning, the audience cracks up at the absurdity of the script, to which equally powerful performances lend impetus. But theatrically speaking, the central idea of the play couldn’t come through clearly. The underlying stupidity of the characters’ arguments is not as important as the realisation that these arguments serve no purpose other than what they really are – gibberish.
The transition from ‘laughing at’ and ‘acknowledging’ the gibberish did not happen for the audience. Despite a few smart theatrical choices, such as seating the audience on the stage, it seemed that the director shied away from going the extra mile in terms of utilising the space, which an experimental play like this deserved. Worse comes to worst, it would have not worked, but that is the sole purpose of experiments.
For this reason, The Bald Soprano is a brilliant production, but falls short of being a masterpiece; brilliant, because of an immaculate performance by Romana Haider, who seemed as comfortable with her silent reactions to other characters as she was in her vintage frock. Junejo’s performance was bang on, but in some places, he seemed more concerned about lending directions on the stage instead of acting, which was evident in his lack of focus towards the end. Ejaz was a dynamic performer, but she is certainly a better singer than a performer. Riaz proved to be the weakest link among the actors. The synergy of the cast is what kept the play alive and Junejo must be given credit for being the ideal actor’s director.
A simple yet open-ended play such as The Bald Soprano is not easy to dramatise. Not only does Ionesco put a question mark on the futility of language, but also seems to implicate that the way human beings see the world is not the only and definitive way of seeing it. This could have been communicated a lot more effectively, but this young group of actors was able to deliver a lot more than what was expected of them.
The team’s efforts are appreciable; we have a few risk takers in the Pakistani theatre industry and it is challenges like these that lead to the development of more meaningful and versatile theatre.
VERDICT: The Bald Soprano is ambitious for all the right reasons and the young cast and crew deliver more than what was expected of them. You are sure to get entertainment, but the wordplay is such that you wouldn’t figure out why you are laughing.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 19th, 2014.