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Mahabharata - Alexandra Theatre 26/06/2007

simon gray - 2007-06-26, 13:21:46

If I were to use all the superlatives I'm minded to in writing this, you could probably be forgiven for wondering if I was related to a member of the cast. 

Mahabharata is, for Hindus at least, the 'Great story of India', at 100,000 verses the longest epic poem in world literature, and dating from at least 500BC one of the oldest. Alongside the Ramayana it forms one of the cornerstones of Hindu scriptures, and its scope is best summarised by one of its beginning passages - "What is found here, may be found elsewhere. What is not found here, will not be found elsewhere". 

In essence, the story centres around a family feud between two sets of royal cousins - the Pandava brothers and their common wife Draupadi, led by our hero Arjuna and the Kauravas, headed up by the villain Duryodhana. I say villain - the philosophy of the epic tends to present a universe where all are governed by destiny, unresponsible for their actions, and Duryodhana was "born to hate the world and all that is in it". In the west most people might be more aware of the Bhagavad Gita, the discourse within it where Krishna teaches Arjuna the nature of dharma, or duty, on the eve of battle as Arjuna has doubts about what he is about to embark on, ending here with the famous quote "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds". 

As with any great epic, there's love, deceit, and a great battle in which hundreds of thousands are slaughtered, with it being highly debateable whether there were truly any winners at the climax, and ultimately Draupadi, who is a perhaps surprisingly modern woman for the time the story is set (5000 years ago) makes the decision to end the pointless cycle of revenge and counter-revenge. 

Not every member of this cast could quite handle all of those aspects themselves, but all were highly capable in at least three of them each, and as an ensemble cast achieved the goal admirably, seemlessly integrating as they moved about all three dimensions of the stageset so you would be hard pressed to work out who was better at what.

Categorising the genre of this production is less than straightforward for those used to standard western performing arts; it is a piece of Kathak, which at its heart is a work of dance, but is so much more than that - a true Kathak performer must be able to dance, sing, act, mime, speak, play percussion instruments, and work puppets. 

Ensemble is certainly a key word to describe the production as a whole, in fact. Often in musical theatre or dance one is left with the impression that the creators of the choreography, music, and text will have occasionally spoke on the phone together, but essentially worked in isolation leaving it to the director to finally bring the components together, but in this production there was an overriding sense of genuine collaboration between all concerned, working together to produce a united whole as a production from the outset. On the credits page Nitin Sawhney was listed first as composer for his fine music, but perhaps an alphabetical credit listing would have been more appropriate. Amongst the musicians the ethereal bansuri (Indian flute) playing of Lisa Mallett must be given special mention as it floated throughout the theatre, and Natasha Jayetileke's Draupadi was every bit the strong-whilst-feminine woman of the story. 

In staging and set design, less is more was clearly the operative thinking - which is by no means to say it was minimal or sparse, but instead well judged, tastefully designed, and effective. The most complex visual effects were executed by means of pieces of cloth, lights, and mesh screens, proving that lasers and video screens are rarely necessary to create the magic of the stage. 

It may just have been because it was Tuesday night, but sadly the Alex seemed to be barely half-full - if you have no evening plans for any night the rest of this week, you could do little better than to catch it whilst you can.

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