Theatre Review: Maya’s Honeymoons by Jesmin Chowdhury

This review was first published in the New Age newspaper in Bangladesh, 2nd December 2016. Click here to see the original.

Theatre Review: Maya’s Honeymoons – Sunday 20th November, Brady Arts Centre, London

By Ken Powell

Jesmin Chowdhury and Al-Khurshid Himu play central roles (Photo: Murad Chowdhury)
Jesmin Chowdhury and Al-Khurshid Himu play central roles (Photo: Murad Chowdhury)

It is no easy ask to present a play tackling a subject a whole community prefers to remain silent about. In the case of ADDA’s latest production, ‘Maya’s Honeymoons’, the subject is one most communities would rather not talk about; and of course it’s vital that they do.

The writer, Jesmin Chowdhury, has written this story based on years of experience having worked with many women who have suffered abuse of one form or another. She wanted to present not just the reality of domestic violence (DV) but also a message of hope to all women who are living the reality on a daily basis. Jesmin Chowdhury plays the title role allowing her to fully express the depth of emotion she wanted to communicate and the play follows the story of Maya, a Bangladeshi woman married to a British Bangladeshi. He turns from sweet and loving, to controlling, to eventually a violent man who drinks and gambles his way through the years as he beats his wife regularly. The ‘honeymoons’ refer to the cycles of violence and seeming repentance as Maya allows herself to believe her husband truly loves her and so becomes a ‘willing victim’ perpetuating the abuse.

‘Maya’s Honeymoons’ pulls no punches. From the beginning we are presented with a series of fast-moving tableaus representing Maya’s journey from blissful marriage to receiving beatings under the hands of her husband Arman (played by Al-Khurshid Himu). Once the play starts formally Maya accosts the audience verbally so violently – “why won’t you say anything?” she shouts before sneering with a “no, you never say anything, do you?” – that I almost felt I had to say something and apologise for my own guilt. It is a powerful way to begin and left me stunned almost as if I had been violated myself.

Equally as powerful is the diatribe thrown at Maya by her daughter (played by Jesmin Chowdhury’s real-life daughter Eela Muhaimin) near the end. To my mind this was the true ending to the play with the ironically named ‘Mishti’ screaming anything but ‘sweet’ words at her mother, scorning and blaming her for Mishti’s own bitterness and internal suffering. Her father may not have abused her, she says, but she had to listen to the beatings every night and that took its toll. In trying to maintain the household for years for the sake of the children, Maya discovers that she has actually ruined their lives by keeping her silence. Eela Muhaimin, her first time acting on the stage, played the role to perfection.

The cast – all amateurs with no paid professionals among them – did a remarkable job with the production and director Apu Chowdhury and all his supporting team are to be congratulated on a remarkably effective job. From lighting to staging, nothing detracted from the telling of the story. One cannot normally say this in an amateur production but in this case it was hard to imagine how a professional cast and crew could have done things differently.

In the Q & A time afterwards there were calls for this production to tour – to universities and schools if possible – and I would certainly agree; it’s a must. The cast was quite large but I think this could be reduced for a touring production. Maya, her daughter, husband, the friend and perhaps one other member would be enough with actors able to take multiple roles. The props were minimal and could be reduced further so that the whole production could travel in one vehicle. I hope that this is something Apu Chowdhury and Jesmin Chowdhury will consider for the future. In a way, to perform this just the once – even though it was to a packed house with not a seat spare – is almost too cruel. It would be too easy to come away saying “yes! Something must be done about this” and then go home and forget all about it. The message of the play needs to be spoken again and again.

Jesmin Chowdhury as Maya (Photo: Murad Chowdhury)
Jesmin Chowdhury as Maya (Photo: Murad Chowdhury)

DV is common to all races, cultures and ages. Statistically, across all groups the violence is also (rather surprisingly) equally matched between the sexes. For many decades now it has been well established that women are as likely as men to commit violent acts of abuse against their spouse or partner. However, among Bangladeshi households, such is the nature of a hierarchical and patriarchal society that the majority of DV tends to be perpetrated against women.

While I do not have the depth of experience of Jesmin Chowdhury, nevertheless I must say that I have been privy to the stories of many Bangladeshi women – young and old – who have suffered DV or live in fear of it from the males in their families. My research into other sociological issues such as poverty, sexual identification and empowerment has also, repeatedly, brought up DV as a common theme not just of married women but of single ones too. Most worrying in such societies is the ingrained thinking of women themselves that such violence is their own fault and they must have deserved it. There needs to be a complete shift in education to bring such thinking to an end.

Perhaps the most understated yet important part of the play, I felt, was almost dismissive and easily lost; I hope the audience picked up on the implications of this one small part. The friend, Nazma (played by Sabreena Zareen Laboni) is the one to whom Maya tells her tale and she tries to persuade Maya to get help and let Social Services intervene. At one point Nazma receives a call, presumably from her own husband, and receives a verbal assault of her own. Maya is not the only one suffering abuse at the hands of a spouse.

The importance of this scene cannot be overstated. Maya’s story is not a single, unrelated and unfortunate affair; she is, to some extent, every(wo)man. And while it is easy to tell another that they need to do something about their situation, it is just as easy to cast a blind eye at your own. Nazma is as guilty of maintaining the wall of silence as Maya and we are left to wonder if she realises this at some future point. In some ways, this is the true warning to all (Bangladeshi) women watching: if you stay silent about your suffering then you condone the continuance for all.

From front to back: Eela Muhaimin, Jesmin Chowdhury and Sabreena Zareen Laboni (Photo: Murad Chowdhury
From front to back: Eela Muhaimin, Jesmin Chowdhury and Sabreena Zareen Laboni (Photo: Murad Chowdhury

One of the questions raised in the Q & A afterwards was “what is the answer?” This is not so easy to supply. Such is the mountain of denial in the culture that a lone voice crying out is potentially going to be ignored. In the UK there are legal recourses and organisations which can help but the stigmas and taboos ingrained from Bangladesh itself are still part of the lifeblood of the culture. I have seen women expose the wrongdoings of males in their family only to see no change in how those males are accepted and the women themselves considered guilty of the crime instead. How do you tackle thinking like this when it is so widespread? I don’t know, but Jesmin Chowdhury’s play is a good place to start.

If I have criticism of the production it is slight and only of the actual ending. Arman, the husband, comes to regret his actions and rushes back to the house to make amends at long last, but the house is now empty. This needs work to be effective and after the astonishing monologue from the daughter which precedes it I don’t think it has the pathos needed to prove a worthy final scene. By this point we don’t care about Arman – he deserves his comeuppance and we as one shout ‘good riddance’ to him. The real tragedy is that Maya has discovered too late that in trying to protect her family she has instead torn it apart. This is the message which should make every woman who is a victim think again and make every man who has committed violence shudder with horror.

The hope offered is that now, even though it is many years too late, when she turns and accepts that help is needed perhaps the emotional wounds can be healed and Maya can finally be at peace from her honeymoons. We don’t get to find out however and the audience is left to ponder and brood upon the implications of this for themselves.

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