In present-day London, a delivery driver waits for an app to assign her a job. In ’00s Kolkata, a garment machinist waits for a factory to call him in for work. Sonali Bhattacharyya's uneven but powerful play draws stark connections between two places and eras, exploring the kind of precarity, poverty and worker exploitation that's fast returning to the UK's shores. ‘Chasing Hares’ won the 2021 Political Playwrighting Award from Uncut Theatre, and it's easy to see why. It's an informative flick through a whole book-worth of activist talking points, from gig economy injustice to child exploitation to what a workers' utopia would actually look like.
But it's also the story of a tight-knit little family, struggling against a system which makes it impossible to survive with your principles intact. Once, Prab (Irfan Shamji) and his wife Kajol (Zainab Hasan) were activists, campaigning for better workers’ rights. Now, they've got new baby Amba to worry about, so they’re keeping their heads down. Prab waits outside the factory gates each day, praying it’ll hire him as a machinist when it lands a big order, while Kajol doles out food to their starving neighbours.
When the factory owner’s theatrically minded son Devesh (Scott Karim) invites Prab to write a play for his traditional Jatra folk-theatre company, Prab sees it as a chance to pen a thinly-veiled socialist animal fable. Devesh cottons on, and reacts by employing a tactic beloved of capitalists everywhere: he buys Prab's silence, by giving him a pricy duplex to live in and a new role as supervisor. What follows is a struggle between comfort and conscience, as Prab tries desperately to hold onto his new lifestyle while fighting for the rights of the illegal child labourers he works alongside.
Initially, ‘Chasing Hares’ drags. Director Milli Bhatia doesn't find a convincing way of making Prab's elaborate animal fables feel gripping (a little light shadow puppetry doesn't cut it) and the play takes too long to set up its central moral dilemma. But in the second act, things start to fizz. Amongst an uneven cast, Ayesha Dharker shines as Chellam, the actress who supports Prab’s bid for justice, while Karim evolves from foppish wannabe thespian to persuasively evil capitalist overlord. And Bhattacharyya's twenty-first-century framing narrative comes into its own, delivering a persuasive final call-to-arms to its audience.
Bhattacharyya attempts something bold here, by merging Indian folk theatre with contemporary idioms. Moi Tran’s dour, grey, spaceship-esque set design doesn't provide the colourful arena needed for the production to sing, and the moments where ‘Chasing Hares’ tries to get the audience chanting along fall a little flat. But even if it doesn't fully rouse the masses, this is still a thoughtful and thoroughly welcome contribution to the conversation around workers' rights, as our politicians try their best to erode them.