The Good Doctor: A Halloween Treat We Won’t Soon Forget

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My friend Sasha is very jumpy these days. She gets creeped out when I talk to her in my silly horror-movie voices, and she can’t stand being left alone in a room for more than five minutes. (Friendly advice: do not sneak up behind her in the kitchen or she will slice your head off with a kitchen knife on reflex.)

What’s got Sasha so edgy, you ask?

Well, she went and saw The Good Doctor only last week, you see.

Those of you who watched The Living Picture’s second theatrical production will know what I mean. Those of you who didn’t – shame on you for missing out on an unforgettable experience. The Good Doctor ended its two-week run at the Islamabad Club last Thursday, November 9. But don’t despair. Read on for all the gory details.

Directed and produced by Osman Khalid Butt, The Good Doctor was something audiences in Islamabad had never seen before onstage: a macabre tale of blinding ambition, volcanic emotion, and cold-blooded murder. You wouldn’t have been able to guess much from the initial promotional campaign of the play – The Living Picture advertised its latest production as ‘a most peculiar love story’, and although the teaser posters that were released on the internet were darkly disturbing enough to give us some idea of the genre of the play, it wasn’t until those stunning video promos came out that we got a better look at what we were going to be in for. (If you haven’t seen the video promos yet, I would really recommend that you go http://youtube.com/profile_videos?user=TheLivingPicture”>give them a look-see – they are truly worth it.)

The premise of The Good Doctor is this (and yes, I have swiped this synopsis from the production’s brochure):

The piercingly brilliant but eccentric Dr. Cyrus Norton is the finest surgeon in all of Philadelphia, and runs a highly prestigious school of anatomy. But his ambitions do not end there; he is also a man with a mission. Cyrus aims to collect and preserve every part of the human body, the normal and the abnormal, the healthy and the diseased, for display in his ‘anatomical museum’. This, his life’s work, shall be his crowning achievement, and he works towards this goal with single-minded obsession.

There is only one small problem.

It is the early nineteenth century, and the law of the state does not allow for an adequate supply of corpses to be used for study and dissection – only the bodies of executed criminals and the unclaimed may go under the anatomist’s scalpel. However, the peculiar love of Cyrus Norton for his craft is unconquerable – a passion so fiercely all-consuming that he will do whatever it takes to overcome the shortage of corpses in Philadelphia…

At a press conference before the opening of the play, Osman described The Good Doctor as ‘a play where one must always expect the unexpected.’ I couldn’t agree more. The script was ingeniously written, filled with bone-chilling moments and such an abundance of twists and turns that you could just never see what was coming even as the performance neared its end. The play was based on Tim Kelly’s Terror By Gaslight, but as with The Living Picture’s first theatrical production Some Like It Hot, Osman gave the script a heavy makeover, this time to best suit his own love for the macabre. Now, I have read Terror By Gaslight, a play lauded by critics as ‘a cleverly constructed thriller that will both enthrall and terrify’ – and in my humble opinion, it is a harmless little kitten compared to Osman Khalid Butt’s The Good Doctor, which is several times more shocking, intense, and disturbing than the original. Osman took a fantastic idea – Kelly’s novel theme of grave-robbery and murder in the name of science – and from it he spun an adaptation so frighteningly dark that everyone who witnessed it left the hall with a chill in the bones and a tumult in the heart.

The beautifully-constructed script was played out in an equally well-constructed and superbly designed set. The set of The Good Doctor, for lack of a more fitting simile, was like a dream. From the crimson walls to the cream tapestry and majestic woodwork , it was everything you could want in a beautiful 19th-century home. But at the same time, it was no ordinary 19th-century home either. This was after all the home of an anatomist, and you could see that too. Elegant portraits of the doctor and his wife adorned one wall, and against the opposite wall stood a skeleton encased in a glass cupboard. Anatomical textbooks and specimen jars lined the shelves. And the greatest oddity was Dr. Norton’s dissecting room – yes, there was a dissecting room. ‘Imagine describing the rooms of this house to a stranger,’ complains Dr. Norton’s sister Constance. ‘This is the parlor. This is the sitting room. This is the sewing room. This is the dissecting room. It’s depressing!’ And you could understand why, obviously. Amid the grandeur of the lavishly-decorated sitting room, the off-white curtains enclosing the mysterious dissecting room imposed their foreboding presence like a dead body lying in state.

The costumes were another major attraction, majestic and beautiful in their richness – extravagant silk ruffled gowns, delicate little bonnets, impeccably tailored suits. You could tell they were very well-researched. Paired with the set, the costumes really gave the play an overall feel of an actual 19th-century Philadelphia, transporting audiences to a faraway place and a time long, long past.

The play had a highly atmospheric musical score. Besides the haunting background musical pieces and startling ‘stingers’ – not to mention that menacing pocketwatch melody – The Good Doctor also featured some very well-chosen and meaningful song selections. The curtains closed to the strains of ‘You Made Me The Thief of Your Heart’ by Sinead O’Connor. The opening of the song was embellished with the a rhythmic recitation of a poem used in the play (this embellishment was so appealing to audiences that many people have actually been asking around for where to download this ‘special version’ of Sinead O’Connor’s song).

What is really wonderful to see about The Living Picture is that its productions are largely a family effort – Osman has the tremendous good fortune of being assisted in his work by his sister Michelle Tania Butt and brother Omar Khalid Butt, both of whom co-produced The Good Doctor. Theirs is a strong, dedicated presence, one that can be clearly seen whenever you attend a Living Picture show – you will always see the siblings in charge, busily running around getting everything done, at the entrance, in the auditorium, backstage – everywhere. In addition to her duties as producer alongside her brothers, Michelle is a very influential creative force in Osman’s work. She was personally responsible for designing the exquisite set and costumes for The Good Doctor.

The cast was a real highlight of this production. Of all the plays I have seen yet in Islamabad, this was the first in which I witnessed an ensemble performance, in the real sense of the term. There was no weak link in the cast of this play, and that is perhaps one of the highest ideals a production can aim for. I have spoken to multitudes of people about this play, and everyone seems to have their own favourite – in fact, each character seems to have acquired a considerable fan base. There was no single star of this production, as with so many other previous plays. Each cast member of The Good Doctor made his or her mark – and how.

Osman Khalid Butt played the role of Dr. Cyrus Norton. This was, I believe, the perfect role for Osman to showcase his versatility, not only because it was a very different character from any he had played before, but also because the character of Norton was in itself very complex and multifaceted: Osman, as Cyrus Norton, would be cold and immovable one instant, and utterly beside himself with rage the next. From the ghost of a smile that played coldly on his lips as he inflicted his biting sarcasm, to his agonized exclamations of remorse as he trembled violently with grief and fear, Osman’s portrayal was brilliant and powerful, the kind that shakes you to the core.

Dr. Cyrus Norton is a man who was born to hurt the women who love him, and the play is as much about these women as it is about the good doctor. Zainab Ahmed, Zainab Qaiserani and Mariam Saleem play the three female members of the Norton household: Marilyn, the doctor’s frighteningly intelligent daughter; Constance, his exuberant sister; and Grace, his long-suffering wife. Zainab Ahmed has shown a maturity well beyond her years as the young and ambitious Marilyn. With her deep voice and natural poise, the actress exuded the brilliance and strength of character that made Marilyn her father’s daughter – a fortune that curses her as much as it favours her. Zainab Qaiserani, as Constance, was simply delightful, an actress at her finest. Her high-pitched laughter and boisterous demeanor were absolutely priceless, and her displays of fury – though infrequent – were hair-raising. Mariam Saleem delivered an excellent performance as Mrs. Norton, drawing the audience into her world of angst and desperation, her every word cutting deep into the listener’s heart. After her pleasant, ‘sugary’ roles in previous plays, Mariam definitely proved her range with this dark, bitter role.

The theme of the wounded female is further embodied by Kitty and Mrs. Culp, played by Sundus Jamil and Rubya Chaudhry. Kitty is a barmaid at a local tavern, and she has had the bad fortune of being ensnared, impregnated and subsequently jilted by the lecherous Dr. Daniels. Sundus Jamil was wonderfully poignant in this role, at once willful, desperate, defiant, fragile and utterly heartbroken. A newcomer to the Islamabad stage, Sundus shows great promise with her palpable stage presence and crystal-clear enunciation. Rubya Chaudhry, known to most Pakistanis for her modeling credentials and recent appearance in the horror film Zibahkhana, made her theatrical debut as the bereft Mrs. Culp. Recently widowed and consequently driven mad with grief, Mrs. Culp discovers that her husband’s body has been snatched from his grave, and now she wants revenge. This character, ladies and gentlemen, gave me nightmares – mostly because Rubya Chaudhry’s screams are the kind that could scare a banshee to death. Her performance was both heart-stopping and heartrending – invoking pity half of the time, and cold-blooded fear the rest.

Sundus and Rubya both made their theatrical debuts with this play, but they were not the only ones. One of the most refreshing aspects of the production was the introduction of so many brand new faces. The Living Picture seems to be living up to its commitment to welcome new blood into the fold, and what talented blood it is. Ahmed Ali played the role of William Dover, a young doctor freshly graduated from Harvard and come to study anatomy under Dr. Norton. Ahmed’s Dover had all the unassuming charm of a bumbling boy-next-door, and all the dignity you’d expect from a dedicated man of medicine – a combination he pulled off with his engaging stage presence. His prim and proper golden-boy part was in direct contrast to Edward Daniels, played by fellow newcomer Salahuddin Isa. Daniels is also a doctor, but with none of the discipline and integrity of William Dover – in fact he is, in Norton’s words, ‘a wastrel, a gambler, and a seeker of pleasure’. One arch of that eyebrow and you could see that 17-year-old Salahuddin was about to show you the meaning of the word ‘bastard’ – his charms were unfailingly dangerous and his voice never lost its oil.

Usman Mukhtar also debuted in The Good Doctor, making a lasting impression on the minds of Islamabad’s audiences with his fragile portrayal of Cedric, the Nortons’ servant-boy. Cedric is a marvel of script-writing and acting, a character created to instill fear, pity, wonder, and even love, into the audience’s hearts, through the expression of a gifted performer. Without saying much at all, Usman told Cedric’s entire life story with every step he took, every word he stammered, and every look in his eyes.

Other newcomers featured in the play included Ali Nadeem in the role of Detective Harrison, and Usman Ali Khan as Norton’s esteemed colleague, Dr. Charles Withers. Ali’s performance as the affable detective was just that – affable. Usman Ali Khan, known to his peers as Otto, was unfaltering as the good-natured, walrusy Dr. Withers.

Norton’s pet graverobbers, Gin Hester and Leonard Scrubbs, were played by Natasha Ejaz and Asfandyar Munir. Natasha played Gin Hester with frightening accuracy, the role of a crazy woman who just isn’t wired the right way. You could hear the sparks of electricity inside her, like machinery malfunctioning. She was a joy to watch. Asfandyar had previously performed only in comic roles, so this was new territory for him, playing the part of a 19th-century bad guy, but he pulled it off really well – unsettlingly servile one moment, and murderous the next. Either he was made for the part, or he has truly matured as an actor. I should add that the brochure of the play mentioned that Gin Hester and Scrubbs were both English convicts who had escaped en route to an Australian penal colony – and Natasha and Asfandyar both did fantastic jobs depicting that background with their accents.

On a final note, what was really great to see about The Good Doctor was that it was not only a refreshing change from the done-to-death musical comedy genre in Islamabad, but also that it was a very tasteful change. The play demonstrated the difference between ‘cheap thrills’ and a very classy thriller. It was grotesque but did not rely simply on violence to be disturbing. The very aura of The Good Doctor was chilling, and perhaps the most unsettling aspect of it was that it was not all that removed from reality at all. Not only was The Good Doctor based on actual events that took place in the 19th century, but it also posed questions that are very relevant to the world today. In the words of the production brochure (yup, I’m swiping again): ‘The world of Dr. Cyrus Norton is not as farfetched as one might imagine. In fact, the questions raised in The Good Doctor are more relevant today than they ever were before. As science advances on and controversies emerge from laboratories in every corner of the world, mankind finds itself caught up in a soul-searching debate: how far is going too far in the name of science and human progress?’

I love how The Living Picture has made it a point to touch on social issues, however lightly or emphatically, in each of its productions. Now this is quality entertainment. I can’t wait till the third production is announced.

Until then, I’ll keep Sasha away from the kitchen knives.

9 Comments so far

  1. Fauzan (unregistered) on November 13th, 2007 @ 10:15 am

    A great piece Fatima :)


  2. Talha (unregistered) on November 13th, 2007 @ 10:16 am

    Fatima, was this a post or the thesis of your literature degree :S

    Just kidding, thanks for the post and welcome to the Islamabad metblogs.

    I agree, “Science is a stern master”!!!

    Thanks again.


  3. Paidagir (unregistered) on November 13th, 2007 @ 11:33 am

    welcome to Islamabad MetBlog, Fatima


  4. Phil (unregistered) on November 13th, 2007 @ 11:51 am

    What an opening act! Wah! Welcome aboard.

    Talha, I bet you’ve been a naughty boy with science.

    Fauzan… nothing :P Wasap?


  5. Phil (unregistered) on November 13th, 2007 @ 11:52 am

    What an opening act! Wah! Welcome aboard.

    Talha, I bet you’ve been a naughty boy with science.

    Fauzan… nothing :P Wasap?


  6. giggly (unregistered) on November 13th, 2007 @ 8:12 pm

    Too long.I doozed off… :s


  7. Mr. Islamabad (unregistered) on November 13th, 2007 @ 9:38 pm

    If the play is only half as good as the details you included, I can’t wait for the 3rd Production either…. I’ve been dieing to schedule some theater on my calender.


  8. Phil (unregistered) on November 13th, 2007 @ 11:41 pm

    I bet a team reviewing of dramas would so, so awesome.


  9. Osman Butt (unregistered) on November 21st, 2007 @ 6:34 pm

    Wow. The review was detailed to the core, and I’m glad it encompassed everything the play stood for.

    A standing ovation, then.



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