This March has brought Dawar Lashari’s interpretation of the acclaimed West End musical, Blood Brothers, to the Lahore theatre scene. Originally scripted (with lyrics) by Willy Russell, a 20th century English dramatist and poet, it was first performed in 1981 as a school stage play, and remains one of the longest-running West End shows to date.
It won’t be an exaggeration to say that Lashari’s directorial venture has won Russell’s script some more fans, through a crisp execution and attention to detail. The play proved to be a pleasant distraction from the media onslaught about the tense standoff with Pakistan’s estranged brother to the east, India. The ancient Greeks would have said there was a divine sign in the words ‘blood’ and ‘brothers’. Luckily for the region, Pakistanis are more inclined towards peaceful co-existence, and making memes.
Russell definitely wrote the script with the earliest Greek plays in mind. Much like the Greek plays of yore, the script draws upon the timeless appeal of a family saga. Misfortune and betrayal together weave the thematic strands of the storyline. Mrs Johnstone is the woman betrayed by her man, and forced to provide for her eight children alone in 1960s’ England. Mrs Lyon is her rich employer who uses Johnstone’s straitened circumstances to her own advantage. Mickey and Edward are the twins separated by poverty: with the former staying with his family in a city slum and the latter destined to become part of a rich household. Linda is Mickey’s childhood friend/girlfriend, and the character whose presence keeps the plot moving forward. Sammy is Mickey’s older brother whose propensity towards street fights and crime is hinted at in the childhood scenes. This group of characters together ensures that Betrayal, that staple feature in Greek plays, makes a multilayered appearance here.
Betrayal would lose its shock value were it not exhibited by one’s nearest and dearest. Mother, brothers, and lover — all push poor (pun not intended) Mickey towards the edge. By the end of the play, it is his character that evokes the audience’s pity even though it is the mother who is left to mourn the death of two sons.
Could a script be said to be even remotely inspired by the ancient Greek playwrights without the inclusion of a ‘prophecy’? Blood Brothers checks off this box too. The clever Mrs Lyon manipulates Mrs Johnstone into silence by alluding to a legend that warns of immediate death if the truth is revealed to the separated twins. For the curious, a quick Google search will reveal that Russell was the seer who made this prophecy.
Mrs Johnstone’s forced goodbye to baby Edward begins the modern tale of nature vs. nurture that Blood Brothers is supposed to embody. Fraternal twins separated at birth who become friends; both unaware of the other’s true identity. Best buddies who fall in love with the same girl. That alone would be sufficient for an emotionally charged play. But then add to it the story of the poverty-stricken single mother forced by circumstances to give away a child, and the stark portrayal of life-long discrimination in a capitalist world becomes as real and relevant as in the Lahore of 2019.
All would have been gloom and doom but for the bursts of songs. Iman Shahid’s turn as the woman struggling to make ends meet proved to be one of the highlights of the Lashari play. Her powerful acting was supplemented by her equally impressive live singing. Had it not been for the director’s announcement, the audience would have continued to believe that the songs were pre-recorded.
Casting was overall superb, with each actor embodying the spirit of their character. The Narrator is a classic Greek character included by Russell in the original play. While Waleed Zaidi was perfectly in character and tone as the omnipresent Narrator announcing the impending doom of the Johnstone twins, he is one aspect of the original script that one wishes Lashari had done away with. The general opinion amongst the audience was that the Narrator came across as an unnecessary interruption in the action of the play.
Mahnoor Yawar as Mrs Lyons portrayed the stereotypical rich person consumed with self-interest with sophistication. Edward, played by Abdullah Ghazanfar, made the perfectly well mannered foil to the street-smart antics of his friends, Mickey and Linda.
Rasti Farooq played Linda, Mickey’s love interest. As a departure from the Greeks, Russell’s Linda is not a silent victim of fate. Her boisterous and defiant character was excellently enacted by Farooq, and complemented by Mickey’s personal journey without letting it overshadow her.
Mickey, Mickey, Mickey. Ian Eldred’s personification of Mickey cannot be appreciated enough. The play was Mickey’s and Eldred’s. From his first scene as a seven-year-old playing with his friends in the streets to the finale as a man maddened by anger, Eldred grew with his character.
While the main characters had their work cut out for them, Omar Cheema was phenomenal as Sammy, the gangsta. His body language and facial expressions were so natural that it seemed he had just walked in from a street fight.
The struggle in the play is not just about the impact of different circumstances on personality; it is the fight for survival in a capitalist world where the poor are forced deeper into poverty while the rich become richer. These class differences have been depicted through the parallel setup of two houses, one rich and the other poor, divided by a common road.
The backstage team of Harris Parvez, Mariam Ahmed, and Daniyal Nasir must be complemented for their hard work.
A Pakistani audience is used to long tales of family misfortunes. The television industry has built its ardent fan following for dramas that feed on public emotions through depictions of treachery, oppression, false identities, and love triangles. Destiny, or kismet, is often identified as the culprit for such tragedies on local television. The Greeks and blood brothers would agree.