Just before our final London rehearsal run of Tartuffe, it was so bleeding hot that I had begun to excel in the art of consuming a rocket ice lolly whilst simultaneously starting a physical warm up that included Bhangra moves. And it was the first time with an audience, made up of our friends in the Tamburlaine company who had also been rehearsing in the building. Up to this point our company manager and her stage management team had been striving to keep us cool, providing us with ice packs, fans, lollies and a growing number of air coolers. But in order for our audience to hear us, the fans and air coolers were switched off for the performance. In the culmination of our final week’s work, we forgot the heat in our scenes as we gave our all, the back of our necks wet with sweat.
We might as well have been rehearsing in the summer heat of the Punjab, a province in Pakistan that spreads across the border to India. In our play, the Pervaiz family are Punjabi, as am I, our director Iqbal Khan and some other cast members. So in the last few weeks I found myself poring over Google maps of the Punjab locating my family hometown of Kharian, and their hometowns like Tahlianwala, Chakwal, Attock, Gujranwalla and Jalander. Over this time I had become increasingly more and more emotionally connected to the play. So many mixed feelings - as much as there was so much joy in playing the gift of the role of Dadimaa (a potty-mouthed grandmother) there were days when certain lines or themes within the play resonated too loudly and I was overwhelmed by emotional memory.
At lunchtime before the final run, the rehearsal room was empty and I was running a speech I had fluffed in a previous run. Iqbal came in and we talked about Dadimaa’s emotional state, and I remembered my own maternal grandmother in Lahore when I visited in the 1970s as a six-year-old child from Cambridge. At that age I was always singing and dancing and playing but she disapproved and called me mirasi, a derogatory term for someone who comes from what was considered a lower caste of singing and dancing entertainers. There is also a blatant misogyny in the play. The sort of misogyny I grew up with in Cambridge during my own childhood and have also talked about in my stand-up routines. So for me as an actor, the real joy in playing Dadimaa comes from the fact that she is everything I am not. And yet everything about her makes me the person that I am.
This last week in London was also about bringing the play’s final scenes together. I worked individually with movement director Shelley Maxwell on Dadimaa’s movement, consolidating the work with the zimmer frame, and also with Anna McSweeney on the clarity of Dadimaa’s speeches that flip in and out of the Punjabi language and English in a Punjabi accent. One of the highlights for me was watching Raj Bajaj and Zainab Hasan, who play Dadimaa’s grandchildren Damee and Mariam, bring their musical contribution together in a mash-up which was choreographed with the rest of the ensemble in the morning and delivered in that final London rehearsal run. By the end of this full-on tropically-heated week, we were so ready to move on to cooler climes in Stratford.