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First Theatre

Those of us who live in the West and don’t explore the rich variety of cultures in the Muslim world are prone to bundle them together and treat them as one. Labels attached to the bundle make much use of stereotypes, emphasising various sorts of intolerance to do with religious freedom and the subjugation of women. So it is massively liberating to glimpse the very different culture of Tatarstan as shown to us in this first visit to Britain by the Tatar National Theatre.

Exactly 100 years ago the first public professional theatre performance in the Muslim world took place in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan. In those days it was a region of tsarist Russia and its Sunni Muslim population was emerging from social upheavals similar to those that engulfed Middle Eastern states a century later. The conflicts that this brought about between old and young, ancient customs and modern wishes, are treated for comedy in the company’s opening production, by its most famous playwright of the tsarist period, Galiasgar Kamal.

The choice of First Theatre as the opening play of the company’s London season is apt, set as it is on the very night the theatre opened in 1906. In a relatively well-to-do household two married couples are eager to experience this new excitement but must conceal their destination from the tyrannical head of the family. There is a dimwit maid who makes a hash of her instructions, and the comedy ends with the irate patriarch striding off to haul them from their seats at the theatre.

It is essentially a succession of sketches, peppered with some engaging physical nonsense, but what is most fascinating for a Western audience must be the play’s revelation of the easy relations between men and women that existed at the time. The women wear brightly coloured costumes with not a veil or a chador in sight. And at the end we see husbands and wives publicly sitting side by side in the theatre. Just as many Russians have now lived for generations in Tatarstan, so Tatars have spread throughout Russia, and Zulfat Zhakim’s Dumb Cuckoo, the second play, explores the stresses of nationhood surfacing during the 1939 Winter War, between the Soviet Union and Finland, when two soldiers from opposite sides discover that both are Tatars. The opportunity these plays give to learn more of a land so little known to us is very good news indeed.