'Marx in Soho' dives into the human side of the philosopher
Prominent theatre troupe BotTola, in association with Jatrik, presented their play, "Marx in Soho" at the Nilima Ibrahim Auditorium of Bangladesh Mohila Samity in Bailey Road, Dhaka, recently. The whimsical play by Howard Zinn has been translated into Bangla by writer Javed Hussen. The production is helmed by actor and director Naila Azad.
Set in a crowd less bar later revealed to be in Soho, New York, the play follows the concept of breaking the fourth wall from the very beginning. Karl Marx, in an upbeat mood, gets excited at the presence of the audience, whom he proceeds to engage with directly throughout the narrative.
Beyond his theories, Marx has an enduring effect in modern society. The words of "The Communist Manifesto" however, took its shifts, and drifts and what remains perhaps is a cloud of confusion – the play clears this cloud to a great extent.
Azad, in her note, mentions that she was drawn to the humanist approach of Zinn for Marx. The intention of the production is rooted in a humanist standpoint, and not as a political ideology. The narrative intends to discover a lesser known Marx, who is not only a philosopher and revolutionary, but also a loving father and husband.
We not only find out about Marx's private, intellectual and political life, but also about his thoughts on today's world.
Azad's rendition of the play is compelling. The combination of acting, music, dance, and digital media bring a full circle to the imaginative critique of our society's hypocrisies and injustices through the voice of Marx. Humayun Azam Rewaz as Marx delivers a performance that proves his potential.
From dialogue projection, singing, and the role switch as Mikhail Bakunin from Marx, Rewaz takes up the heavy routine challenge quite comfortably. Umma Habiba, who plays Marx's wife and confidante Jenny von Westphalen, steals the show with her impeccable movements. Azad and Habiba in choreography present a lucid creation of movement language and mime concepts.
Zinn's script does not shy away from addressing Marx's unfulfilled projections, and gives Jenny her due credit. Azad takes it one step further by presenting Jenny as a hovering spirit shadowing Marx even in an imaginative space. The approach provided a relief for the audience.
With a two-hander presentation, the play highlights a dialogue-movement balance between the performers.
Using the music of Franz Liszt, Camille Saint-Saëns, and Claude Debussy, Azad intends to present a 19th century London. She also blended pieces by Max Richter, Steampunk, George Frideric Handel, and Lizzie Burns to create a musical portal between the past and the present. Yet, the beautiful orchestration lags to transcend to the audience and remains as a peripheral concept of the production.
The inferior end of the production perhaps is the use of new media. On stage, Marx paces around a table with an array of current newspapers, disdainfully ranting at those who claim his ideas are "dead", and reads statistics of unemployment, poverty, and incarceration in the country. This is often paired with visual aid at the background, which shifts from time to time.
While the text presents comical and sober themes to create an insightful, witty "play on history", the production loses its subtlety with the extensive use of pictorial evidences of our land. An act of reminder to the audience about their reality could have been avoided. The mere fact that Marx repeats "I'm not a Marxist" throughout the play is enough provocation to re-think.
Zinn presents Marx's return as an alternative to the Second Coming; the concluding dialogue in Bangla is far from the intended pun.
"Marx in Soho" is a timely play not only in its concept, but also in its execution. Productions though such experimentations would not only provide a platform for interdisciplinary practitioners, but also develop the standard of stage plays in Bangladesh overall. Shows of "Marx in Soho" will be staged at Bangladesh Mohila Samity till tomorrow (October 9).
The author is an art researcher and writer in the making. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.