In a groundbreaking production for Pakistan and perhaps the world, a 24-hour live performance was streamed to raise awareness on a social issue with rising importance: the capital punishment. No Time to Sleep, performed immaculately by the formidable Sarmad Khoosat, was a collaboration between human rights group Justice Project Pakistan (JPP), the Dawn Media Group and Olomopolo. The play was based on a real convict – Zulfiqar Ali Khan – who spent more than 15 years on death row for a crime he denied he committed; he was convicted for the death of a taxi driver, which was an act of self-defense. Zulfiqar spent much of his time educating more than 400 fellow prisoners and himself earning dozens of degrees and certifications. He was executed on May 6, 2015.
On World Day against the Death Penalty, through a live performance directed by Kanwal Khoosat and produced by Iram Sana, those involved chose to dig into the story of one person for the many others that have been executed at the hands of the questionable execution laws in Pakistan.
Sarmad wrote an essay, prior to the performance, about why a dramatic reenactment of Prisoner Z’s story was important to him and how he had to face his own fears of claustrophobia to be able to spend a whole 24 hours in a jail cell. It gives great insight into the method acting that Khoosat adopts and how much of the character he’s playing he truly lives through. Set inside a replica of an actual death row cell, one had the chance to get close to Prisoner Z in his most vulnerable and emotional state. Sarmad successfully managed to represent those feelings that are known to very few and are unique to the situation a death row prisoner could find himself in. As he waits in sheer anguish, he goes through five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance).
No Time to Sleep portrayed what happens to prisoners prior to execution, based on accounts of guards, former prisoners and their families.
While ‘prepping’ Prisoner Z for execution, the most harrowing moments included when he was fed his last meal of biscuits and tea at noon, given his last cigarette and allowed the last time he would ever see his family. In the moments where time is running out, but time is also all he has, he is seen writing letters to his daughter and writing out his thoughts on the floor of his cell. In his final hour, he is seen erasing those same final words scrawled on the floor - that he had pieced together with so much emotion. Because viewers had a whole 24 hours with him, it cannot be overlooked how he developed a relationship with his prison guards. Each guard had a different relationship with Prisoner Z and a different level of comfort with him so when they had to lead him to the gallows, they were equally shaken and affected.
While the play was largely meant to be live streamed, it was also open to public to walk in and view from a small room in front of the set at Evernew Studios. Not much was visible from the room but it was an immersive experience sitting there – just waiting, endlessly with only the occasional sound of the guards stick breaking the silence. One could not help but think about how the family of the prisoner or other visitors of the jail have to sit through similar conditions.
At the end, Prisoner Z received a temporary stay of execution one hour before he was due to be hanged but was hanged a month later. Many times, death row prisoners receive a stay on their execution after they have been hung and then there is no way to bring them back. The play brought to light many such faults in the judicial system. Hours before dying, Zulfiqar had actually asked a guard to tell his lawyers that he felt as though he had lived another lifetime in that precious month. The irony is that when you know your days are numbered, you find new meaning in them.
Not many actors have the emotional capacity to portray such lengthy and tiring roles but Khoosat managed to not break character for 24 hours. It was a completely raw portrayal without any added effects. Many people are conflicted on capital punishment, as was evident through the comments on Dawn’s live stream, but this live act – giving them raw insight to what happens to a death row prisoner – made them double think their stance. One would say that the purpose of executing this harrowing act was served.