Tag Archives: Sonali Bhattacharyya

Silence – Donmar Warehouse

Verbatim theatre can be extremely powerful, its cumulative anthology approach creating the broadest picture of an issue or the impact of an event in the affecting words of those who lived through it that show the widespread political, socio-economic and cultural implications across multiple communities, countries and eras. But it can also be difficult to stage in ways that effectively capture the full force of those original testimonies, giving them the individual space that each experience demands while also meeting a dramatic quality that theatre embodies. Sonali Bhattacharyya (who wrote Chasing Hares at the Young Vic), Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, Ishy Din and Alexandra Wood’s new play Silence, premiering at the Donmar Warehouse, tries to navigate this dilemma in its exploration of Indian Partition and the long silence from those who were there.

Verbatim theatre productions usually go in one of two directions; in the first, the writer creates a strong narrative frame which semi-fictionalises the circumstances or the events it covers, using oral history interviews and conversations with participants to feed into the dialogue and the creation of specific scenarios that may compress, reflect or distill the experience of multiple people into a single character or sequence. This is often how the National Theatre approaches a verbatim show like Francesca Martinez’s All of Us, telling a story but using original words as evidence like a historian would to support the broader case being made for action, change or greater understanding.

An alternative outlet for verbatim theatre is the character-based structure that tells whole stories in a series of chapters dedicated to different individuals who give their perspective on events. It doesn’t take single phrases or paragraphs out of their original context and merge them together, but presents one wholesale experience at a time to an audience. This approach – which is the one taken by Silence – largely leaves the audience to draw its own conclusions based on the information presented across the different voices, building a picture of multiple effects, themes and consequences that create a muddier picture of everyday life than perhaps offered by the more structured approach to verbatim theatre. It is one that makes room for the complexities and contradictions of humanity and of individual behaviour and it, arguably, more accurately reflects the lived experience. But there is a theatrical cost in terms of presentational variety and dramatic drive across rather than within these pieces.

Silence includes multiple fascinating, shocking and terrible stories within its 105-minute running time. Based on Kavita Puri’s book Bhattacharyya, Kaur Bhatti, Din and Wood put a Puri figure at the centre of the drama as a writer looking to collect stories about the effect of Indian Partition on her now UK-based community of Indian immigrants and their descendants. Cast in journalistic mode, the protagonist is looking to write about the thin white line the British drew and its long-lasting effects, so the audience is shown the process of tracking down willing representatives from the Muslim, Hindu and Sikh communities in India in 1947 and the series of interviews that take place in which the interviewer is a largely wordless observer of another life – her silence in the moment of retelling mirroring their long refusal to speak about those painful years.

Starting with the bigger picture, Silence is ultimately an awareness exercise, its purpose is to give voice to the effects and problems generated by Partition that have shaped individual lives, the diaspora of Indian peoples around the world as well as being the basis for modern and contentious division between India and Pakistan. It is not an overtly political play in that it isn’t seeking to affect change or to champion a specific policy that will improve the here and now, and while it does have many political dimensions, not least in highlighting the ongoing consequences of empire, for better or for worse, Silence tries to look beyond the national decision-making and process of Partition to focus on micro level events in the lives of everyday citizens. In doing so, it argues for a common understanding that Partition marked a sea change in multiple contexts, not just in the overhasty British withdrawal from India but that the ill-conceived and poorly implemented process had painful family and neighbourly implications that changed everyone.

Bhattacharyya, Kaur Bhatti, Din and Wood use an openly verbatim structure, in which their central character essentially ‘collects’ the reminiscences of others in order to write a book about the effects of Partition on India communities in the UK. The dramatic driver is her dismissive father who maintains his own silence about the events of 1947 and its immediate aftermath which, as the writers provide further context through other recollections, builds eventually to this man’s story and a greater understanding for descendant generations. In between, the protagonist is a shadowy figure, sitting in recess, often to the side of the stage, as her interlocutor talks without interruption and director Abdul Shayek conjures up their different perspectives on this divisive event.

And there is much to learn about the deep complexity of this period that, as Silence argues, suddenly and crudely drew a line between two countries and several religions that had existed in relative harmony before. There are semi-hopeful stories of neighbours shielding each other from violence, of Romeo and Juliet-like couples with different forms of worship who fled together and built a life, and of individuals coming to realise later how much more they had in common than divided them. So while hindsight is a wonderful thing and it may have taken decades to finally reach that conclusion, Silence does explore the opportunity to grow and understand beyond the immediacy of Partition.

But largely, Bhattacharyya, Kaur Bhatti, Din and Wood’s contributors paint a sorry picture of mobs hounding difference out of their neighbourhoods, of deliberate tit-for-tat desecration of religious spaces, of hundreds of desperate refugees crowded on trains and forced into destitution by the occupation of their land, the scale and brutality of the displacement caused by Britain’s “white line” astounding. These experiences are given extra edges by the inclusion of Sikh, Muslim and Hindu voices all reporting similar atrocities committed against them by a newly formed ‘other’ or ‘enemy’, while the rape and torture of women as well as the killing of children is a sadly inevitable outcome of this new form of warfare. Hearing these testimonies from workers and mayors, mothers and administrative assistants to the last Viceroy, even white men born and raised in India, is powerful, almost overwhelmingly so in what proves to be the strongest element of Silence but also its limitation as a theatrical piece.

The ways in which these stories are presented on stage are often too similar. Largely, the speaker sits on the same side of the stage and recounts their story uninterrupted. These conversations replicated how Puri heard them in multiple living rooms across the country, so designer Rose Revitt offers different arrangements of furniture to convey these place changes, yet still the story is delivered as one person sitting down and speaking for 20-minutes. Cumulatively, there is a power in that, in hearing so many tales that build a broader impression of Partition, but it makes the overarching drama too episodic and creates too many peaks and troughs as one story dramatically ends and another begins, making it hard for the audience to understand the pace of the show and how an overall conclusion will emerge.

Director Shayek does some very interesting and atmospheric things with backdrops and projected photographs, telling one story entirely in silhouetted movement, backlit behind a curtain as another actor mimes on the main stage. Another uses Elena Pena’s sound effects and soft orange lighting by Ciaran Cunningham to generate an immersive impression of India at night, a romantic memory of children playing harmoniously together or wistfully watching the packed trains speed by on their way to some exciting destination years before. But the show does take on a Talking Heads quality, a slightly repetitive narrator-style, delivering a tale straight on without fully acknowledging and taking advantage of the three-sided audience present at the Donmar (a failing also notable in Force Majeure).

Bhattacharyya, Kaur Bhatti, Din and Wood’s play eventually builds to a pathos-filled conclusion that has darker undertones, looking at the shame of collaboration, the misdirection of youth and considering alternative reasons for the long held silence – shame. For the journalist lead character it is a moment of revelation and understanding that moves her deeply but there is greater potential here for impact than the current draft offers. While it is admirable to shy away from the dry ‘facts’ of the Partition, to step away from the official line and present an alternative experience, to give greater meaning to Silence, the audience does need some of that shape in order to understand Britain’s decision to withdraw at that moment, the reason for commuting their exit strategy to just 10 months and why drawing a random line in the sand creating two separate countries and 75-years of contention.

Bhattacharyya, Kaur Bhatti, Din and Wood are incredibly fair and balanced in the presentation of these stories, giving equal weight to different Indian communities, to those who were there and their heirs who felt the weight of their silence on another continent as well as to different religious perspectives. The writers seem equally open to the idea that the British were incompetent or thoughtless in their withdrawal and not necessarily malicious, even allowing one participant to rue their departure when the country is left in chaos. It never for a moment divests Britain of the responsibility for the human and political cost of Partition but it does grapple with the concept of a contemporary British-Indian identity in which Partition should have a greater centrality.

Performed by Renu Brindle, Sujaya Dasgupta, Bhasker Patel, Jay Saighal, Rehan Sheikh, Martin Turner, Somi De Souza, Anil Goutam and Nimmi Harasgama as the journalist, the actors take on multiple characters and lives within the different scenarios in what is a cleverly managed ensemble piece. But while there are so many voices represented in a play that explores the widespread impacts and effects of Indian Partition on modern Britain, it needs some exposition on how and why those things happened in the last days of the Raj which, in the long silence that followed, remain unspoken still.

Silence is at the Donmar Warehouse until 17 September with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Chasing Hares – Young Vic

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.

Chasing Hares is at the Young Vic until 13 August with tickets from £12.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


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