Exploitation can take many forms and sometimes it even begins with a creative opportunity. Sonali Bhattacharyya’s lead character in new play Chasing Hares takes a while to find themselves confronting a major moral dilemma but the road to it begins with storytelling, imagination and character creation. Bhattacharyya is interested in where these stories come from, what they represent and their meaning to the individuals and local groups from which they emerge. A play that navigates the hope and aspiration of working class communities in urban India yearning for rural and natural landscapes set against the cold political and economically deprived reality, Chasing Hares experiments with its theatrical form.
Dramas about strikes and factory unrest tend to follow a defined pattern, one in which solidarity and the humanity of the workers is developed before unfolding heroic, David versus Goliath tales of standing up to management in the pursuit of liberty and equality. Stage musical Made in Dagenham and the recent Shake the City appearing in Jermyn Street Theatre’s Footprint’s Festival are jaunty perspectives about female unionisation and pay disputes while a defining work like Lynne Nottage’s Sweat was not so much a play but a howl of pain for one-industry towns in rust belt America decimated by the move to imported cheaper labour.
Chasing Hares sits somewhere between these extremes, using allegory and theatre to create visual spectacle but equally concerned with the plight of factory workers in Kolkata where jobs are scarce and a major international contract creates a mad scramble to make money. And like Nottage, Bhattacharyya focuses on the difficult middle management role when Prab a former worker is raised to a position of power and ultimately compromised by it as he chooses between protecting his own salary for the sake of his young family and, in the face of unscrupulous management that pushes against his moral code, the pressure to care for the people in his charge.
But while politically fired, this is not a story in which right and wrong are presented as black and white concepts, and more than once Bhattacharyya notes the central character’s active consent to the events of the play and, despite his history as a former activist and agitator, we see Prab’s willingness to ‘sell-out’ his ideals for material comforts and, more seriously, to advance his creative ambitions. But there are other compromises too and while the workers of the Khub Bhalo factory are never seen, their financial desperation forces them to take significant risks, putting themselves in danger in ways that inform the ethical quandary at the heart of the show.
But Bhattacharyya’s point is an important one, mirrored in a modern-day conclusion based in the UK, that argues choice in these circumstances is a misleading concept when social constructs of power, money and influence create the conditions in which one group of people can exploit another. What the factory families chose to do may be morally and ethically troubling and the owners may argue that all applications to work are voluntarily given, but ultimately Bhattacharyya shows there is no other option when the alternative is to go without an income, food or housing.
Bhattacharyya dramatises that through the gentle rise and trajectory of Prab’s family, growing from a small set of rooms where they live with his wife’s mother to regular work, a stable job and the chance to live in a better neighbourhood. At the start of the play, Prab is one of many out of worker breadwinners who stalk the factory gates every morning in the hope that it will reopen and work will be plentiful. But Bhattacharyya creates conditions in which contracts are awarded to competitors operating at lower cost and the regular early morning clamber for work is a futile hope in an area in terminal decline. The sudden end to the drought brings with it another set of problems, an employers market in which the factory owners can offer almost any terms and still be inundated with applicants. And slowly Bhattacharyya starts to tip the balance where opportunity becomes no choice at all.
The journey that Prab is taken on is a complicated one as he navigates the shift from worker to manager urged by his wife, Kajol, to remain passive and do whatever is asked him of him to protect their young family. As the rewards for that flood in, improving their financial and, to a degree, their social status, Bhattacharyya’s Prab is troubled by the consequences that give grounding to the play, turning what could be a solely high-minded story about workers’ rights into a more complicated portrait of individual, family and social needs conflicting across the experience of one man.
The extent to which the protagonist is taken in by the factory owner’s son Devesh who is also a theatre performer is shaped by Prab’s personal desire for creative recognition and fulfillment, when an opportunity to write and perform alongside him and fellow actor, Chellam, in a Jatra troupe presents itself after a night at her show. It is an unusual entry point to the play’s central dilemma but it does create depth in the characterisation by giving Prab a separate interior life and aspiration that Bhattacharyya intricately works into his political ideals, creating opportunities to compromise Prab with multiple implications for his professional integrity as well as his morality. But the writer is also arming her character, giving him different ways to reach the same audience of workers by looking to the social power of theatre to reflect and inspire.
This leads into the world of narrative and imagination that anchors the play and Bhattacharyya has Prab create an allegory that runs through the show, an original piece that speaks to the mystical traditions of India storytelling with its fairytale characteristics including an oppressed princess, talking animals and an evil landlord destroying the natural habitat but with fervent political undertones that speak to worker conditions and the possibility of a utopian equality. Bhattacharyya feeds the audience this story in chapters running throughout the show, told first to Prab’s baby as he tries to lull her to sleep and later as acted scenes performed by Prab’s famous new friends as he dramatises his imagined world for them.
What Bhattacharyya is doing here is quite interesting, on the one hand exploring the consistency of these ideal societies, partly referencing communism but also deeper traditions in not just Indian writing but in broader international romantic responses to the growing pressures and confinement of urbanisation. This fantasy world that Prab creates is entirely rural and equitable – there would have to be a lot of meetings as one character jokes but there is a wistfulness in the creation of these places that is both aspirational and, the storyteller knows, almost certainly unachievable. For Prab and Chellam the question becomes to what degree are they motivated to do something, to make a small difference while all the time knowing what they truly want is nothing but fantasy.
In order to tell his tale, Prab allows himself to be bought, initially for financial security but also for art, to be able to work with creative people. His head is turned by their flattery and interest in his ideas, giving him a platform that it takes him some time to recognise and use, eventually prompted by events elsewhere in the play. But there are other costs too, not just to his integrity but there is a price to speaking out both in muted and amplified forms which are explored in the final section of the play as the consequences of the two sides of his life come together, that in themselves create a whole new direction for his family. Within Chasing Hares then, Bhattacharyya asks what power does a story have and what should be the cost?
In staging the play, designer Moi Tran has appropriately created two playing spaces, parallel stages, one of which sits in recess. And across them the two worlds of Chasing Hares intersect – Prab’s reality and the illusory dramas performed by the actors allowing director Milli Bhatia to move between these stories, retaining their distinction but blending them and their outcomes together. Akhila Krishnan’s striking video design projects across the stage, creating spectacle by filling it with an animated version of the forest landscape that Prab develops in his mind, unfolding its trees, creatures and tonal shifts as he recounts his dark but hopeful story.
Across the piece, Krishnan’s work begins to creep into the sparse simplicity of the everyday that Tran implies with only a few props to represent the changing spaces from family homes to the factory floor and its backrooms. The appearance of silhouetted birds edging into the corners of this story is pointed, taking on a foreboding quality that adds to the atmosphere. Jai Morjaria’s lighting and Tran’s costume contrast these subtle moments with an explosion of theatricality when the actors perform with interesting reflections on the visual effects of messaging and, as our very best political theatre shows, commentary and entertainment need not be mutually exclusive.
Irfan Shamji as Prab settles into his role quickly, a likable lead that the audience can invest in and follow through the stories as a representation of thousands of similar lives. Shamji moves well between the straightforward scenes in which Prab comes to understand his own limits and the jackanory moments in which he conjures a whole world for baby Amba, although really for the audience. A good man in an impossible situation, the character grows in confidence as Chasing Hares unfolds and Shamji captures well the energy and enthusiasm for Prab’s creative endeavors, his increasingly troubled conscience and the pressure to hold onto any job for the sake of his family.
Zainab Hasan as his pragmatic wife Kajol offers a contrast, a woman who knows the price of things and wants to make less high-minded choices but nonetheless complements Prab as a partner. It would be useful to see more of her perspective, particularly as she too works multiple jobs and is the primary carer for Amba but Hasan makes much from the material she has. Scott Karim brings nuance to the show’s main baddie Devesh who could easily have become a bland boo-hiss villain. Instead, there is personality in his lack of empathy and ability to manipulate that make Karim a strong and compelling presence on stage. As is Ayseha Darker’s Chellam, a starlet tired of the classic works she must endlessly perform and eager to tackle something more meaningful. But Chellam is also a character with some depth and a similar pragmatism that makes her almost cynically dismissive of her work until inspired by Prab’s writing. Darker also has great comic timing and a cutting delivery that brings some alternative moments of levity to the piece.
Chasing Hares is a short play, running at just over two hours with an interval and there is much in this world particularly among the secondary characters and their motivations that could be expanded. Not seeing the factory workers isn’t a problem given the play’s setting in middle management and domestic spaces but towards the end a sense of the widespread fervour for change and the impact of Prab’s actions on the community needs a little more might behind it. Nonetheless, Bhattacharyya’s play is packed with commentary about the power structures that support political and economic elites, the limits to freedom of choice and the optimistic possibilities of one great story as the means to tear it all down.