Until Saturday 2nd October the Oldham Coliseum play host to The House of Bilquis Bibi, brought by award-winning theatre company, Tamasha and Harrogate Theatre. Written by Sudha Bhuchar this is a modern retelling of Federico García Lorca’s 1936 masterpiece, The House of Bernarda Alba, set in a volatile present day Pakistan on the frontline of America’s war on terror.
Using the same premise as Lorca’s original, the widowed matriarch, Bilquis, must uphold her family’s honour at all costs, placing her five unmarried daughters under house arrest as they mourn for their late father. In a society where life decisions are made by elders in the family, Bilquis decides the fate of her girls, thus denying them a future of personal fulfillment.
This suffocating world is established onstage by use of the set and positioning of the actors. A windowed wall divides the stage horizontally, enabling the actors to perform from behind it. When in front of the wall there are occasions when the united family sit with their backs to the audience, obstructed from view by a bench. Though the notion behind this is clear, it ruined key moments as the audience was incapable of seeing the action or the actors’ reactions. The lighting design gave sense of the house’s rising temperature as the tragedy unfolds, but unfortunately too often actors are not properly lit and more moments are missed.
Though it is compelling to be permitted a window (and at times, we are quite literally peering through a window) into this world, ultimately the play does not succeed in communicating the desperation of these characters and their situation. The stilted nature of much of the dialogue led to some stilted performances, which disappointingly failed to invoke any real empathy in the audience.