Conflict of freedom, women’s responsibilities at play

by Ershad Kamol | Published: 00:00, May 08,2019


A scene from Sutay Sutay Hannah O Shapla

BE IT in Sweden or in Bangladesh, position of a woman in a patriarchal society is almost the same: their joyful life ends when they are forced to take family responsibilities.
This message has been delivered in Theatre Art Unit’s latest production Sutay Sutay Hannah O Shapla presenting similar narratives of two deceased women from two countries in two periods of time.
One character of the play is Hannah, a Swedish woman from the early 20th century while another character Shapla is a contemporary Bangladeshi woman.
Hannah says goodbye to her suitor anticipating termination of her joyful life for fulfilling the man’s future plans in the conjugal life while the Shapla commits suicide being cheated and deprived from her fiancé and the society as well.
Both the characters have many similarities — they have joyful childhood memories in midst of nature, have strong bonding with their mothers, learn the art of embroidering from them and face cruelty of the society as they grow older.
And there are, of course, dissimilarities created for socio-cultural differences that made the task challenging for both the playwright and director to present Hannah and Shapla parallel onstage.
The play was premiered on April 26 at the Bangladesh Mahila Samity’s auditorium on Bailey Road.
It is different from the troupe’s previous two productions dealing with the women issue — Golapjan and Amina Sundari — as well as the storylines and presentation styles of feminist plays produced by the other troupes in the contemporary Bangladeshi urban theatre.
Most of the feminist plays in the country depict crises of women through a titular, mainly adapting from a popular character of myths or ballads, but the Theatre Art Unit’s experimental play, Sutay Sutay Hannah O Shapla, addresses discrimination towards the women in the society and their grief through parallel narratives of two equally important characters.
In her written statement playwright Anika Mahin Eka writes that she was inspired to write it after watching an opera titled ‘Hannah and Shapla’ staged by a Swedish troupe named The Weave Opera in 2017 in Dhaka. But, the character of Hannah in the experimental opera appeared to her bolder and detailed compared to the Bangladeshi character of Shalpa, Anika writes in her statement published in the brochure of the production adding that her intention while writing it was to give equal importance and presence of the two characters.
And she has successfully executed what she desired to by overcoming the challenges of linking common problems of the two women from different time, culture and country.
For doing it, Anika has used a narrator who unfolds the story, introduces the characters to the audience and plays the role of a mediator the two characters in alternative ways.
It should also be mentioned that her third play has been directed by her mother Rokeya Rafiq Baby, who had earlier acted protagonist in Golapjan and directed Amina Sundari.
The second collaboration of Baby and her daughter, after their first project Matsyakam for their troupe, Sutay Sutay Hannah O Shapla leads the viewers to think not only about the helplessness of a woman in the patriarchal society but also vulnerability of traditional art with the beginning of globalisation.
The young Eka’s dialogue diction is also quite interesting and witty to give food for thought to the viewers in the era or globaisation when ruling class treats others like machines.
And in case of depicting the 20th century Swedish woman Hannah, Eka seems to be highly inspired by the Norwegian master playwright Ibsen’s creation of Nora.
The protagonist of A Doll’s House terminates her conjugal life being guided by her urge for freedom, and Eka’s imaginary creation Hannah says goodbye to her suitor as he says that she might have to quit her hobby of stitching and embroidering that she learnt from mother for her responsibilities in the conjugal life.
Shapla also has a similar joyful childhood memories like Hannah with the nature and her mother, but the contemporary Bangladeshi woman faces different types of challenges as she grows up: quits her passion of stitching embroidered quilt as she is forced to become a garment worker after the death of her father. And ultimately she commits suicide for not getting recognition to her fetus from her fiancé.
Baby as the director unfolds the complicated storyline using very simple form of the narrative style. It is the narrator who gives the clues of the stories that are further developed by the musical choir, and the dialogues and movements of the characters.
The narrator starts unfolding the story with the intention of presenting an interesting foreign fairy tale to the audience but face unwanted interference as the character of Shapla all on a sudden appears on stage and starts telling stories of her bond with nature from her down memory line.
The interactions between the ‘disturbed narrator’ and Shapla creates humour and gives clues to several real life issues such as disappearance of tradition in the global culture and tragic Tazreen fire incident as found case of presentation of the traditional performing art forms such as sanj jatra, alkap and pala.
The experimental play proceeds in fast pace through parallel development of the characters until they face the crises at the end of their adolescent age.
The narrator has been presented a bit like a clown apparently to give relief to the viewers in the serious play by director of the play. But, Baby has presented Hannah and Shalpa in realistic way in terms of their costumes, dialogue deliveries and behaviour patterns for representing them belonging to their respective time and society.
Hannah, enacted by the guest actress Sangeeta Chowdhury, appears like a common Scandinavian teen of the early 20th century as she appears onstage wearing a scarf on head and colourful long gown while Shapla, performed by another guest artist Mitali Das, in green sari looks like an average Bangladeshi rural girl.
Sangeeta as Hannah performed spontaneous, especially in the romantic scenes while Mitali could articulate the emotion of the transition of the rural character Shapla’s becoming a garment worker.
Sujan Rezaul as the narrator of the experimental play deserves special mention for his bold and energetic performance.
The tempo and mood of the sequences like romantic and tragic have been articulated well through bold and realistic performances of the actors, relevant music, composed by Selim Mahbub, and light designed by Nasirul Haque Khokon.
But, Baby could work better in case of depicting the final and the most crucial scene of the play when Hannah encounters with Shapla and the characters share their crises.
The depiction of the scene deserves well-articulation and detailed dialogues for the logical portrayal of their deaths and for delivering the message of the play as well.
But, it ends quite abruptly as two characters after their encounters suddenly die on two circular ramps on the empty space resembling them representatives of the women of the world.
Yet, the one-hour play will be considered as a major representative of the experimental urban theatre trend.
The troupe members said that they would stage two shows of the play in Stockholm in Sweden on May 11 and 12.

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