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Staging stories

  • Published at 06:35 pm November 17th, 2017
Staging stories
The fact that David Hare is a giant of modern theatre was all too apparent by the animated introduction by an obviously star-struck Iresh Zaker, who introduced the celebrated playwright as one of the greatest political writers of our time. While Hare's life as a playwright was mainly in focus during the session Staging Stories on the first day of the Dhaka Literary Festival 2017, he was also introduced to the audience as a celebrated screenwriter who won critical acclaim (and two Oscar nominations) with the scripting of The Hours, The Reader, Denial and more. Moderated by actor Iresh Zaker, the session also included Asaduzzaman Noor, actor, theatre activist and current minister of Cultural Affairs.

Beginning institutionalised theatre and breaking away from it

Zaker started off the conversation by drawing a parallel between Noor and Hare's life – while Noor and his fellow theatre activists were responsible for setting up institutionalised theatre as we know it after the liberation of Bangladesh, Hare broke away from the big theatrical institutions in the UK in the 60s and focused instead on working with the Portable Theatre Company. “It seemed to us you could only change theatre if you were going to go places where theatre wouldn't usually go – so we would play in village halls, we would play in prisons, we played anywhere we had space.” Hare spoke at length of his theatre company's wish to “turn theatre outwards”, so that instead of appreciating the play for its aesthetic sensibilities and comparing it to other art forms, the audience would actually listen to what it had to say. “We were there to upset people, not to be applauded by them.” While Hare spoke of breaking away from the institutions, Asaduzzaman Noor focused on the difficulties of institutionalising theatre in Bangladesh. He spoke of his early experience as a refugee watching theatre in West Bengal, and of setting up a theatre company in Bangladesh with no finances and little to no formal training. “Theatre practitioners today still have to pay mostly out of their pockets for their productions. All of them will have other professions to support themselves, and in a Bangladesh that is fast modernising, there is less and less interest everyday in the arts and cultures.”

Political theatre in Britain and Bangladesh

When asked about the content of his plays and some of his central characters, Hare said, “I've written about priests who work among the poor in South London, teachers, nurses and basically people who I think are on the front line and are dealing with all the problems created by free market capitalism and the gross inequalities in the West.” Hare also spoke at length of the motivation behind not only his earlier plays but his life's work – the radical, socialist ideology of 1960s Britain. “We thought we were heading to the breakdown of capitalist society, and none of us foresaw the fact that unfettered, free market capitalism would be more powerful today than it was in the 1960s.” While Hare spoke about socialist ideology and its influence on the political nature of his work, Noor spoke about the war of 1971 and its influence on post-liberation theatre. However, Hare added that while his political ideology did influence his work, he is tired of people asking him to write about Trump, Brexit or other political events. “If I could have predicted Trump or Brexit in a play 20 years ago, then that would be worth writing. Political writers write ahead of the curve, not behind it.”

Sensitivity to stories

The session was also peppered with lively anecdotes, with David Hare sharing memories of an absent father and a childhood solely under the influence of strong women. He also admitted that despite years of work, he is still particularly thin-skinned when it comes to his plays. “Why does it always have to be the person next to the writer who falls asleep?” Asaduzzaman Noor also spoke of his years at university, and how his participation in a cultural programme drew his stern father's ire. “He saw a picture of me sitting in the front row and singing, and he immediately sent me a letter saying 'I see the culture of Dhaka is in very poor shape' – my father was always so critical!” he said with a laugh. “But he made sure I pronounce every word correctly, he taught me to love literature and most importantly, he taught me that every single person in the village was important. And I think it is this love for people that is a very big part of our art.” Hare echoed Noor in emphasising the need for writers to be attuned to the oppressions and inequalities in a society. “Every dramatist needs to have a certain level of hypersensitivity – where you have some sense of what people are feeling or going through, and you are immediately drawn to their suffering.”
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