Sarmad Khoosat narrates stories written by Mohammed Hanif about miscarriage of justice
The instructions were clearly stated on how to attend the virtual theatre production titled The Sun Comes Up. The stories of four protagonists written by Mohammed Hanif laid the foundation of the performance. Each chapter was narrated by Sarmad Khoosat, and visualised through paper puppets on handcrafted sets by Emma Brierley.
The ambient music accompanied by layers of drone sounds by Hailey Beavis were incorporated into the performance. The multisensory depth of the production amplified the emotional narrative of each chapter. The choreographed synchronisation of voice, visuals and sound represented a jail cell as a means to understand privilege, autonomy, unrequited social justice experienced by the marginalised, misunderstood and neglected fringes of our society.
The viewers were invited into the virtual hall, asked to turn off room lights at their homes, and make sure they have their headphones on throughout the performance. The familiarity of attending an opening night theatre show became part of the experience. These instructions helped push the viewer beyond the confines of the Zoom screen. With the lights down, one was drowned in shadows, similar to the characters and Khoosat himself shown as a puppet narrating to an intimate audience. The four chapters were: Ready-made Killer, The Prisoner Who Did Something, Man Who Had One Job, and Lucky Woman. Death penalty was the central theme of the evening. A monologue from the perspective of the prisoner was shared to highlight the series of events that lead to the arrest.
The viewers were greeted by four anti-heroes: two male and two female, who vacantly stared at them through the screen, their caricatures somber and pensive. Each prisoner would have their day in social court, their portraits attached to a paper cutout of a pawn placed on a chessboard stage floor. Each relaying of a chapter confronted the audience with a story of having been caught on the wrong side of the law. Khoosat gave chapter introductions, reminding the viewers of their privilege and freedom and asking for empathy and watching each case without prejudice. Circumstantial evidence piled up against the prisoners making it harder to defend them or appeal their sentence. The murder weapons were a gun, a plastic sheet, a glass of water and a suitcase. The stories highlighted blatant misuse and manipulation of the judicial system.
The monochrome set highlighted these objects as key suspects in the revisiting of each case. The staging felt otherworldly and medieval, the tragedy of each prisoner evident and the atmosphere thick with suspense. A sense of dread and uncertain death prevailed. The screen was split into four sections, there were multiple cameras. One of those highlighted the prisoner narrating their story; another followed the unfolding events. Others provided complementary visuals of alternating sunsets and sun rises. A revolving door moved with each chapter to reveal the face of the next prisoner. The screen kept changing between one main screen and a four-channel format. The “in-camera trial” felts all too real in the meticulous staging of digital and physical elements. The animation was paper cut-outs in a multi-cue environment establishing tableaus, moving through landscapes and urbanscapes, engaging with other sinister and wicked characters of the stories. Khoosat delivered a silent dialogue from the point of view of the protagonist, switching between roles, moods and emotions. The performance explored several layers of societal dysmorphia and highlighted the complexities of agencies of power.
Brierley dismantled the stage before the start of the next chapter without turning off the camera. There was thus a sense of being part of the performance without a disruption or break. The staging showed scenes taking place both indoors and outdoors, contrasting city and village views, the weak and the powerful, evil and good encased in sheets of grey. The playing of thereminesque instruments reflected emotions responding to twists of plots.
The transitions between chapters were intimate. One could hear each performer get ready and a curtain opening called for attention. The virtual performance felt like a physical presence. The changing shadows created a feeling of depth around the flat paper puppets. Each story had elements of trickery, foul play, manipulation and abandonment. The visuals revisited the crime scene through the eyes of the innocent convicts.
The Justice Project Pakistan (JPP) had been orchestrating a host of socially aware art performances in major cities of the country leading up to the World Day Against the Death Penalty on October 10. Their team of lawyers, activists, writers and artists is working with the intension of reforming and humanising the judicial system.
The writer is an artist and an art therapist