'Chasing Hares' review — an ambitious political play that proves why theatre matters

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

If passion and commitment were everything, the excitingly, if rather cryptically, titled Chasing Hares would leave its competition in the dust. Instead, Sonali Bhattacharyya’s play is ambitious in its conception but only fitfully successful in performance – this notwithstanding a production from the fast-rising director Milli Bhatia that throws all sorts of bells and whistles at the text to keep the playwright’s (metaphorical) call to arms on course.

We begin in the modern day in England with one generation of a Bengali family, before rewinding several decades to encounter earlier generations of that same family in Kolkata at a moment of moral crisis (and, we soon discover, physical peril) that reverberates woefully across the years.

A contemporary delivery driver, Amba (Saroja-Lily Ratnavel), is relating life on the front line of the gig economy in England only for the focus to shift for the bulk of the play to her gently radical father, Prab (Irfan Shamji), and his anxieties as a machinist in a clothing factory in India who is seen struggling to make ends meet for his growing family: wife Kajol (Zainab Hasan) and their baby, Amba.

Opportunity of an unusual kind knocks in the folk-theatre form of Bengali entertainment known as a jatra, which Prab is encouraged to write by the snarky (and worse) son of the factory owner, Devesh (Scott Karim), upon whom Prab depends for his livelihood.

What would happen if the fable Prab were to pen contained within it a rebuke, however implicit, of the very same dehumanising circumstances in which he finds himself? Before long, Prab is set on a collision course with the vainglorious Devesh which culminates in a second-act face-off in which a diffuse narrative strikes real dramatic sparks.

A bespectacled, sweet-tempered man with an activist’s soul, Prab finds himself a bloodied and bruised whistleblower under the fearsome thumb of a malcontent who thinks nothing of exacting the sort of punishment you’d expect to find in King Lear. What if he has installed Prab’s family in a comfortable duplex so as to buy the underling’s complicity?

The two actors – seen jointly to superb effect in the 2019 Bush Theatre premiere of Bijan Sheibani’s The Arrival – constitute a memorable double-act once more, Karim as sinewy and steely as Shamji is graceful and understated: one only wishes the larger-framed actor’s weight wasn’t used quite so conspicuously for comic effect.

The first act, to be honest, can be tough sledding, as one pieces together the disparate parts of a narrative that seems to be whizzing off in too many directions. (The framing device, for one, takes a long time to reveal its hand.)

Moi Tran’s turntable set conjoins with video design from Akhila Krishnan and Donato Wharton’s vivid sound design to suggest the noisy, busy world these people inhabit and something purer in the realm of the imagination – if only that could be made their reality. Shadow puppetry gets a look-in without entirely transporting us to some newfound realm.

The distaff side of things is headed by Ayesha Dharker, here marking 20 years since she lit up the West End in the musical Bombay Dreams. Dharker is wittily cast as the actress, Chellam, a seen-it-all talent who leaps at the chance to be part of Prab’s theatrical riff on The Mahabharata, even if Devesh, for his part, is keeping a determined eye on the budding work’s tone: uplift is the order of the day, insists Devesh, not “tragic BS”.

Tragedy, in fact, isn’t far off, as might be expected from a work that won the 2021 playwriting award from Theatre Uncut, an entity formed in 2011 to galvanise politically-engaged writing across the spectrum.

On several occasions, the action shifts rather awkwardly so as to engage the audience in a call-and-response, which might deliver more organically if such erosions of the fourth wall were part of the enduring fabric of the play.

As it is, Chasing Hares seems suspended between an experimentation in form in its own right that also wants to grab complacent playgoers by the scruff of the neck in an awareness of the precarity of the workplace then and now, and the abiding need for workers’ protection.

The title put me in mind of David Hare, the English writer who at the inception of his career was engaged in the Theatre Uncut equivalents of a half-century ago. Chasing Hares follows in a necessary and honourable tradition of making theatre that matters even if, on this occasion, the result needs further shaping and streamlining if it is to properly and thoroughly shake us up.

Chasing Hares is at the Young Vic to 13 August. Book Chasing Hares tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Irfan Shamji, Ayesha Dharker, Scott Karim in Chasing Hares (Photo by Isha Shah)

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