The Mahabharata – Barbican, London.

Reviewer: Chris Lilly

Adaptors: Ravi Jain and Miriam Fernandes

Director: Ravi Jain

A king, for kingly reasons, sets fire to a house. Among the victims of this act of regal arson are a family of snakes. The father of this snake family, understandably upset, bites the king on the neck and kills him. The king’s son, on assuming his father’s throne, orders all the snakes in the kingdom to be rounded up and tossed onto a big bonfire. It is at this point that a passing storyteller intervenes, trying to stop the cycle of vengeance avenging past revenges. The intervention is the substance of the epic saga The Mahabharata, a four-thousand-year-old epic in Sanskrit verse, adapted for the stage in two parts by Toronto’s Why Not Theatre.

The plot of the Mahabharata is the story of the rivalry between two dynasties, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, cousins vying for control of the kingdom that their grandfather ruled. It has a lot of similarities with the story of the Wars of the Roses, and, like Shakespeare’s version of that history, it is quite hard keeping track of who is who, who they are betraying, and what their motives might be.

It would be helpful to have a Duke of Gloucester/ Richard III figure, whose motivations and actions are clear and drive the plot. The Indian saga lacks anyone to root for or to hate and pauses after every decision to have a discussion of moral implications, which doesn’t help the pace at all. Every character is opaque and hard to comprehend.

In Guy and Dolls, when Big Jule plays dice with Nathan Detroit, using his own blank dice but remembering ‘where the numbers formerly were’, we understand the motivation and the stakes. When King Yudhishthira loses everything – his wealth, his brothers, his self, his wife, his kingdom – in a game of dice with his Kaurava uncle Shakuni, there is no suggestion that the game might be rigged. It was: Shakuni’s dice were made from the bones of his ancestors and always obeyed him. This doesn’t seem to be any concern of the sketchily pauperised, exiled, maltreated Pandava brothers, any more than it bothers anyone when Yudhishthira’s beautiful bride Draupadi finds herself, through a clerical error, married to his two brothers as well. These are problems originating in a four-thousand-year-old text, so it’s probably a bit late to ask for another draft, but it is a difficulty for Why Not Theatre’s contemporary production.

The huge positives of the show which plays over two nights or over a whole day, however, are the look of it. Beautiful video scenography, lovely work from the six musicians on stage, using East Asian percussion and electric instruments to great effect, and combining with a well-judged sound design. The dramatic high-spot is an operatic rendition of the Bhagavad Gita, exquisitely sung by Meher Pavri, resplendent in gold gown, gold head-dress, gold side-light; and in the use of red sand. The sand forms a circle that defines a playing space when the storyteller brings in characters to tell her tale. It gets scattered by rival pretenders to the throne, and it gets luxurious carpets spread on top of it, but throughout the story, it is an increasingly chaotic visual metaphor, simple, elegant, beautiful.

The problem of identifying with any of the characters is mitigated somewhat by the performance of Miriam Fernandes as the storyteller. She also has a hand in directing and adapting the script, but her warmth and energy provide a valuable focus in a necessarily baggy, sprawling production.

The Mahabharata is a globally important work, as crucial as, if less well known in Europe than, The Iliad and The Odyssey. It has received a respectful, dynamic treatment from Why Not Theatre, and it deserves attention.

Runs until 7 October 2023

The Reviews Hub Score

Exhilarating, extravagant, exhausting

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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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