Mahabharata: a Modern Retelling – Jermyn Street Theatre, London

Reviewer: Dominika Fleszar

Adaptor: Carole Satyamurti

Director: Jatinder Verma

It is truly a skill, to take a millennia-old (literally), 200,000 verses-long Indian epic and turn it into a riveting tale that has more in common with a Netflix show than with dust of a library. This skill is mastered by the adaptor Carole Satyamurti, director Jatinder Verma and a cast of twelve incredible female actors.

The entire show – exceptionally long, totalling at some 300 minutes and divided into three parts – is seemingly nothing more than a well-rehearsed dramatic read-through. And yet, there’s no shortage of excitement and vividness. A convoluted tale of virtuous maidens, angry deities, brave men and short-sighted hunters who remarkably often mistake people for deer unveils, verse by verse, to reveal deeply flawed characters, profound moral lessons and, perhaps surprisingly, a fair share of relatability.

Narrating the struggle between two groups of princes, the Kauravas and the Pandavas, in times of war and peace, as well as their ancestors and their successors, Mahabharata is filled with plot twists, romances and even philosophical musings. The simplicity of form – no scenography and hardly any stage movement – helps to caption the beauty of words, brilliantly translated and modernised by Satyamurti.

If anything, all measures undertaken to break this simplicity seem unneeded at best and vexatious at worst. Certain phrases that are meant to be read by four actors together tend to only disrupt the flow of the main reader. The music, although pleasant and definitely ancient-India-inspired, oftentimes seems to hit at random moments and is overall just a bit repetitive, especially for a show this long.

The cast is dazzling. All twelve actors, some widely acclaimed, some pretty new to the stage, shine with excellence, but the highlights of the show are Shobna Gulati who engages her voice, body, and mind so that heroes and heroines of the ancient text could live again, and Shelley King whose marvellous interpretation of the epic’s finale will leave any audience a little (or a little more) teary-eyed.

Each actor gives each character a bit of her soul – for some, beautiful Draupadi, a wife to all five Pandavas, is angry and desperate, for others, soft-spoken and confident. Some see the strong Bhima as a hot-blooded madman, some as comic relief. These differences only enhance the beauty of the text itself and leave a large space for individual interpretation.

Jatinder Verma’s version of Mahabharata isn’t some sort of Earth-shattering performance. It is, however, beautiful proof of how powerful theatre can be without the special effects and other money-consuming tricks. It is proof of substance over form. And lastly, it is proof of how the post-pandemic theatre can stand up again, led by words, interpretations, creativity, and – people.

Reviewed on 12 June 2021

The Reviews Hub Score

Substance over form

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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