When Delhi-based theatre director Feisal Alkazi calls his latest play a story about the “aam aurat”, he isn’t using a current political catchword. Love in a Time of Oppression, which was staged as part of Sahitya Kala Parishad’s theatre festival, Natya Utsav, yesterday, answers a fundamental question — “What happens to women, when the men are hounded, killed or taken away?”
Based on real-life interviews by US-based playwright Robert Ridley, the 90-minute-long play unfolds in Slovakia in the ’40s when 19-year-old Magda lands a job at a travel agency. She is meek and naïve — hardly the stuff that heroes are made of. Around the same time that Hitler begins to round up Jews and transport them in packed trains to concentration camps, Magda meets and falls in love with a well-to-do young man called Josef. The first upheaval in her life comes when she finds out that Josef is a Jew. The plot of the play weaves through political changes in Eastern Europe, from the Nazi era to communism, and its microcosmic effects on Magda’s life.
Alkazi, who has directed more than 300 plays in the last 42 years, keeps to his signature style of commenting on Indian events through his stories, including those set in another place and time. “The only kind of plays I choose to do are those that will have relevance to this moment and time,” he says. Though it is based in World War II Slovakia, Love in a Time of Oppression has echoes of the Partition in the grim opening scene of two trains passing each other in opposite directions, and the issues of Kashmiri Pandits among others as well as themes of migration and the diaspora. “Magda symbolises the tremendous resilience and power of women as she takes on powerful forces,” says Alkazi.
Inspired by paintings of Paul Klee, a German artist, and films such as Schindler’s List and Shop on the Main Street — both dealing with Hitler’s persecution of Jews — the sets of Love in a Time of Oppression are made of wrought iron with ambiguous spaces filled with props. In one scene, Magda, who is travelling through the length and breadth of the country trying to get papers that would allow Josef to escape, asks a question: “Think about it, how many people do we really know in our lives? If we could do anything to save somebody outside the family, how many would we save?” It’s a question the director hopes will provoke the audience after the curtain falls.
The play will be held at Epicentre on February 9 and India Habitat Centre on February 23.