Stratford has never seen so much daal and honour

Whisper #88

On my first day in Stratford, our Tartuffe company manager showed me the best fish and chip shop, but I just came home and made a pot of daal. I sat at my dining table, enjoying every spoonful gazing at the black painted exposed wooden beams in my C17 period cottage, listening to the busker outside crooning his amplified version of Starry Starry Night. It was, as Virginia Woolf would call it, a moment of being. And since then the busker has sung Starry Starry Night every flipping night. And in case you’re wondering, I did make another pot of daal, but I didn’t throw it over his head; I ate it.

That first night, our Tartuffe cast reunited in the Swan Theatre – some of us sitting in the audience watching the rest of the cast who were performing on stage for the opening night of Tamburlaine. A spectacular opening scene where everyone on stage looked like god-like rockstars. And in many ways, Michael Boyd‘s production is genius and so relevant. Jude Owusu’s power-hungry despot senselessly conquers and kills. And the timeless, familiar scenes beg the question: as the world advances technologically, why can’t mankind progress in its humanity? My character Dadimaa would have grown up knowing all about Tamburlaine as Timur the Lame. As a child, if Dadimaa misbehaved, she would have been told Timur the Lame would be coming to get her. For her generation growing up in the Punjab, Tamburlaine was the bogey man.

Zainab with Amina, who is in full costume as Dadimaa
Zainab Hasan with Amina's Dadimaa.

Those of us watching got to see the stage space we would be performing in and we left the theatre all inspired and excited to get back into rehearsals, but there was one scene in Tamburlaine that particularly affected me. It was Zainab Hasan’s (who plays Dadimaa’s granddaughter Mariam in Tartuffe) deeply moving scene in which she plays a mother who kills her son rather than surrender him to Tamburlaine. In doing so she protects her son’s honour. It reminded me how, during partition, my grandfather kept a revolver so he could shoot his six daughters (including my mother) and protect their honour if his house was in danger of being seized.

In our version of Tartuffe and in much of my experience of plays that have a South Asian connection, contemporary or period, there is no escaping the complex cultural trappings of shame and honour. These days in England, the only time most people think about the word honour would probably be in court if they were addressing a judge or saying it in their wedding vows. Otherwise it’s not exactly a word that is embedded in the twenty-first century Western European way of life. But in Western European Small Heath, Birmingham, when it comes to the women in Tartuffe - Dadimaa the grandmother, Darina the cleaner, Ameera the wife, and Mariam the daughter - there really isn't much of a play without the family's struggle to protect their precious honour.

Asif and Riad in costume
Asif Khan and Riad L Richie in their costumes.

I felt it most this time as we sat in a circle during our first line run after a two-week break, reconvening for our daily dose of script-induced laughing and giggling at each other. In rehearsals when the whole ensemble is together, there is somebody who inevitably gets the giggles and sets everyone else off and we all struggle to avoid each other’s gazes and carry on... This time it was our lovely Yasmin Taheri, who plays Pippa, Dadimaa’s carer, collapsed in a heap in a chair, her face red from laughing.

In the break, Asif Khan, who plays the title role of Tartuffe, showed me the balcony view of the River Avon which is what we will see from our dressing rooms. Then our director Iqbal Khan came out and we talked more about the parallels in my grandmother's life and Dadimaa's.

I came home to find a new version of a Qawwali song that had just come out in Pakistan. Qawwalis are like the gospel equivalent of spiritual devotional songs in Punjabi and there was a lyric that jumped out at me and summed up the colossal loss of life in Tamburlaine and the inner world of Dadimaa – it translates as ‘a thousand sorrows within’. It’s the thousand sorrows that an entire generation of immigrant mothers endured in the sixties and seventies as they left their tight-knit families and simple lives in Pakistan and moved to England, their hearts brimming with hopes and dreams for a better life for their children.

Amina Zia on top of a mountain

Amina Zia

Amina Zia is an actor and writer, stand-up comedian and potter. This is her RSC debut. She’s climbed so many metaphorical mountains in her life that she’s started conquering real ones. Follow Amina on Twitter: @AminaZia1 and Instagram: @amina_zia1.

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