Sonali Bhattacharyya’s award-winning Chasing Hares at the Young Vic may take a little time to warm up but proves powerfully affecting
“I’m not political. Not at all. Never have been. I’m a company man.”
Timing is everything and in programming a play about workers’ rights, the power of activism and the significance of the power to protest, the Young Vic has hit the mark with Chasing Hares. Sonali Bhattacharyya’s play was the winner of co-producer Theatre Uncut’s 2021 Political Playwriting Award and it is clear to see why, as it explores the growth of zero hours culture, stretching from punishing factory conditions in Kolkata in the 2000s to punitive working conditions in London in the 2020s.
Though its political credentials are clearly well established, dramatically it doesn’t feel quite as assured, Milli Bhatia’s production can’t quite disguise the methodical but slow world-building of the first half. We first meet Prab as he’s giving his daughter Amba a pep talk due to the soul-destroying nature of her work as a delivery driver for a food app. Then we flash back to West Bengal to follow Prab’s own story as a struggling worker and activist torn by his responsibilies to his fellow workers and to his new family.
He’s also a writer, a practitioner of the Bengali folk Jatra theatre, and when the factory owner’s son gets him to pen a piece, he reacts by creating subversive allegories, to which the son responds by promoting Prab into a life of relative comfort, leaving him conflicted about where his socialist loyalties lie. Excitement and drive certainly come into play, especially post-interval, and it is hard not to get swept up into the moral morass of what compromise is ever acceptable, and the stark reality of how precarious so many of our working situations are.
Irfan Shamji is most effective as the conflicted Prab, and Ayesha Dharker continues a particularly rich vein of form as actress Chellam who eggs on his theatrical chicanery. Moi Tran’s stage design tips perhaps a little too far into expressionism, not quite connecting with the material as Akhila Krishnan’s video work plays out. But the final scene pulls back to the quietly defiant political power that made Bhattacharyya’s play stand out in the first place – some might find it sentimental or cheesy, just thank your lucky stars that you’re in a position to do so.