Oppressed Workers from West Bengal to the UK
Prab “Every other woman he met – every other woman in those fields, had had a hysterectomy. . . .women in their thirties, in their twenties. No toilets, you see? Nowhere to change your underwear. . . No rest for anyone suffering period pain. So – simple solution. Remove their wombs. And you have a reliable one hundred per cent model worker. One who can put in more hours, take fewer breaks. ”
Sonali Bhattacharyya’s play Chasing Hares won the Theatre UnCut’s Political Playwriting Award and is produced jointly by Theatre UnCut and the Young Vic. I was impressed by her play Two Billion Beats about British Asian school girls in England at the Orange Tree this year which is rescheduled there in January 2023.
The Japanese have an expression that you can’t chase two hares at once and the verb hare is a synonym for chase. Here the playwright sets her play in two different countries across two different periods of time, but the parallels of oppressive employment and political activism are present in both.
The situation in England frames the main story which takes place in Kolkata a generation before. I’ll return to that later. In West Bengal Prab (Irfan Shamji) is telling tales from the Mahabharata about Draupadi and Krishna to his baby daughter Amba. He makes up another character, Chandi who battles against the ogres with the help of falcons conjured as shadow puppets.
He had been an activist against the factory owners who abused their workforce, often with long periods where they were laid off without wages.
With his wife Kajol (Zainab Hasan) Prab goes to see “jatra” traditional Bengali theatre where tales like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana are performed. He persuades celebrated actor Chellam (Ayesha Dharker) that his stories would be an exciting update and Devesh (Scott Karim), who also happens to be a land owner and whose family has clothing factories, and is the other actor, commissions Prab to write a script.
The script is a success and Prab finds himself in regular work and promotion, with company housing as a part of his factory employment and with the part of the monkey god Hanuman in the plays. Of course Devesh doesn’t know that Prab was once a leader of strikes and resistance in the “rag trade”.
I won’t spoil the exciting denouement in West Bengal except to say that it involves the scandal of child labour and the intervention of a journalist from the Reuters agency.
A generation later in the UK, Prab’s daughter Amba (Saroja-Lily Ratnavel) is grown up with a baby of her own and is awaiting work delivering food for a company called EATRIGHTNOW. They are paid £2 a drop but nothing for waiting around. Amba may have inherited her father’s resistance genes.
This is a finely constructed play with resonances about the price of economic success on the labour force. The performances are excellent, Ayesha Dharker’s beautiful and caring Chellam who also sings and dances, Scott Karim enjoying his spoilt rich boy role Devesh, Zainab Hasan as Prab’s long suffering wife who does the accounts and brought up in the UK Saroja-Lily Ratnavel’s Amba’s resistance. Of course the lead is Irfan Shamji as the father with imagination tussling between success and doing the right thing.
It is easy to see why this won the political new play award.
Written by Sonali Bhattacharya
Directed by Milli Bhatia
Director: Milli Bhatia
Designer: Moi Tran
Composer: Sarathy Korwar
Movement Design: Chi-San Howard
Video Designer: Akhila Krishnan
Lighting Designer: Jai Morjaria
Sound Designer: Donato Wharton
Running Time: Two hours 10 minutes with an interval
Booking to 13th August 2022
66 The Cut
London SE1 8LZ
Tube/Rail : Waterloo/Southwark
Telephone: 020 7922 2922
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge
at the Young Vic
on 25th July 2022