Stage Door Review 2023

Mahabharata, Parts 1 & 2

Thursday, March 23, 2023


written by Ravi Jain & Miriam Fernandes, directed by Ravi Jain with Miriam Fernandes

Why Not Theatre with the Barbican, London, Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake

March 9-26, 2023

Bhishma: “What has been spoken once cannot be unspoken”

Why Not Theatre’s stage adaptation of the Mahabharata is a magnificent achievement in every way. Not only have Ravi Jain and Miriam Fernandes condensed the world’s longest epic poem with great sensitivity and insight to its very essence, but they have thoroughly reconceived the poem as drama. In their hands one gripping, strikingly imagined scene follows another sweeping us along in its powerful storytelling. Jain as director and Fernandes as associate director have created a production as visually and aurally engaging as their story. It is only March but I can’t imagine I will see a greater work on stage in Canada this year.

The Mahabharata is one of the great works of world literature. As you watch Jain and Fernandes’ drama unfold you may keep thinking of parallels in the action of the piece to other great works – Exodus in the Bible, the Iliad, Aeschylus’ Oresteia, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Icelandic Njál’s Saga and Völsunga Saga, the German Nibelungenlied, Shakespeare’s two tetralogies of English history plays and, if you know Japanese literature, the Heike Monogatari and the Kanadehon Chūshingura. Eventually, however, you stop comparing and simply accept the Mahabharata on its own terms and marvel at how comprehensive its action is and how universal its concerns.

The Mahabharata is considered the longest epic poem ever written. Like the Iliad and Odyssey, it began as oral poetry that was later compiled and finally written down. The period of development of the Mahabharata is placed at about 400BC to 400AD. It consists of over 200,000 verses and about 1.8 million words, ten times the length of the Iliad and Odyssey combined.

The Mahabharata has been adapted for the Euro-American stage before in the French version by Jean-Claude Carrière directed by Peter Brook in 1985. It was nine hours long and was later adapted as a six-hour television miniseries broadcast in 1989-90. Carrière based his adaptation on the so-called “transcreation” of the work by Indian poet P. Lal, so far the most complete translation of the poem in English. Brook later returned to the subject in 2015 in the hour-long epilogue Battlefield in which key players of the epic contemplate what has happened.

Thus, Jain and Fernandes are doubly audacious. Not only are they adapting the longest epic ever written but they are adapting one whose previous adaptation was acclaimed as the ‘’theatrical event of this century” and the culmination of the work of one of the 20th-century’s greatest directors.

The achievement of Jain and Fernandes is that they make their adaptation their own, an adaptation for the stage that triumphs in its own right. The two based their adaptation on Mahabharata: A Modern Retelling (2015) by Carole Satyamurti written in blank verse. Her translation is itself over 900 pages long. The miracle of Jain and Fernandes’ adaptation is that they capture so much of the essence, both in terms of plot and philosophy, of the epic in such a relatively short space of time – two plays of 2½ hours each.

Unlike the Carrière-Brook version, Jain and Fernandes present the epic in its original context as a story-within-a-story. In brief King Janamejaya, who rules over the Pandavas, learns that his father was killed by the king of the serpents. In revenge, Janamejaya makes an attempt to kill all the snakes who live there. Before the snake sacrifice is complete a Brahman boy orders the sacrifice to stop saying that Janamejaya’s great-grandfather, the famed hero Arjuna, would disapprove of his action. Does the King not know what Arjuna learned – that a cycle of revenge once begun never ends without the destruction of both sides?

To explain this lesson to Janamejaya, a Storyteller is brought in who then proceeds to tell the story proper of the Mahabharata (meaning “great India”). The Storyteller begins by detailing the ancestry of Arjuna, who is a Pandava, and how a rivalry broke out between the Pandavas and their cousins the Kauravas to possess the throne of Hastinapura, a conflict that led to the cataclysmic Kurukshetra War, a battle unparalleled in Earth’s history in which one billion people died.

By beginning with the framing story, Jain and Fernandes take the risk of alienating the audience by bombarding it with a large number of names and deeds that they will not need to remember until the very end of Part 2 of the play. The great benefit, however, is that the framing story immediately sets up the reason why the Mahabharata story is being told and highlights the theme of the cycle of revenge that informs the entire work. We see how it begins, the physical, mental and spiritual destruction it causes and the aftermath of the destruction when people finally give themselves the time to reflect one what they have done. The benefit of beginning with the framing story thus far outweighs its risks.

As in all epic poems or dramas where family members fight each other for possession of a throne, the cause in the Mahabharata is a power vacuum. This power vacuum comes about in a very unusual way. Devavrata, son of Shantanu, King of the Kuru Kingdom, takes a vow of lifelong celibacy so that his father will be allowed to marry Satyavati, the daughter of a fisherman. Because of this, Devavrata’s name is changed to Bhishma (meaning “terrible vow”).

After the death of Shantanu, Satyavati permits her son Vichitravirya to have children with two widows. One child, the blind Dhritarashtra, later fathers 100 sons with his wife Gandhari. These became known as the Kauravas. The other child, the pale Pandu, cannot father children, so his wife Kunti summons four gods and has a son or sons by each – Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna and the twins Nakula and Sahadeva (the twins never appear). These five become known as the Pandavas. Thus, there is no clear notion of who should succeed Shantanu’s son to become king. Duryodhana, eldest of the Kauravas thinks that since his mother produced children first, he should be king. Yudhishthira, eldest of the Pandavas, thinks he should be king as the first-born of the late king’s wife.

Jain and Fernandes’ adaptation well demonstrates how minor disputes between the two sets of cousins escalate from play into war. The god Vishnu, the preserver of order, sees the discord developing and sends his avatar Krishna to attempt to stop it. In Hindu myth an avatar is the material incarnation of a deity on Earth. It has a god’s wisdom but is mortal. Not only does the strife between the cousins escalate but so do Krishna’s attempts to stop its escalation. These struggles plus several other attempts to control the cousins of both sides lead to constantly rising dramatic tension.

Peter Brook’s famous production had a cast of 21 from 18 different countries, the diversity of the cast intended to show the universality of the story. Ravi Jain’s has a cast of only 14, half from Britain and Australia and half from Canada and all of South Asian descent, a casting choice that emphasizes the origin of the story. In Jain’s version the universality of the story becomes clear through the storytelling itself. At the same time Jain follows the practice of gender-blind casting that he has used in such productions as Prince Hamlet in 2017, which underscores the universality of the characters’ thoughts and emotions in a quite a different way.

Having seven fewer actors than Brook means that Jain and Fernandes’ adaptation eliminates all but the most essential characters needed to convey the essence of the tale. Seven actors play only one character while six play two characters each and one actor plays four. Not having all the roles doubled definitely adds to the clarity of the storytelling.

All the roles are well cast and all the actors function as tightly knit ensemble. Not only do the performers act but they frequently have to move and dance in remarkably strict synchrony.

Jain and Fernandes have constructed their adaptation so that each of the fourteen performers has a chance to shine, nevertheless several of them are particularly noteworthy. Principal among these is Miriam Fernandes herself who plays the Storyteller. In a metatheatrical twist, Fernandes is the Storyteller for the entire show to us, the audience, as well as the Storyteller specifically called for by the Brahman to tell the tale to the snake-burning King Janamejaya of Arjuna and the Kurukshetra War.

It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Fernandes in this role. She tells the tale with anticipation in her tone that makes you hang on her every word. Her voice reflects the humour, sadness, irony, compassion and dread inherent in each event and significantly guides us in interpreting what we see. In both Parts 1 and 2, the Storyteller comforts us, “Don’t be confused by plots. Within the river of stories flows infinite wisdom. That is your true inheritance”. It is primarily the strength and conviction Fernandes shows in narrating events that convinces us that, despite all the names and complications of plot, this is a story that is well worth following closely. And so it proves to be.

Canadian Anaka Maharaj-Sandhu makes a fine Arjuna, the most clearly heroic character in the story. Maharaj-Sandhu engagingly blends a kind of childlike innocence with superhuman strength so that the extraordinary feats Arjuna accomplishes appear completely natural to the character. Yet, Maharaj-Sandhu displays another side to Arjuna when, setting out into battle, he asks of Krishna what the purpose of this slaughter is, why he should participate in it and, in fact, how human beings should act at all when their time on earth is so short and their individual lives so nearly meaningless. This Maharaj-Sandhu does as if a bright schoolchild had finally found a teacher who could answer all the most important questions.

Briton Neil D’Souza plays Krishna as a most genial character – serious when seriousness is called for, amusing when the mood is lighter. In both case D’Souza conveys a sense of irony in his voice. This is a brilliant touch. Krishna interacts with human beings who live in the moment, but possessing a god’s knowledge, he already knows the outcome of every one of their actions. It is natural that D’Souza’s character should display both compassion and wryness when he can place a paltry individual’s life within an infinite context.

Like all great works the Mahabharata does not paint either the Kauravas nor the Pandavas as all good or all evil. Nevertheless the closest the stage adaptation comes to possessing a villain is in the character Duryodhana, son of the blind King Dhritarashtra, who seeks at every turn not merely to dispossess the Kauravas of whatever land they claim but to humiliate them. Briton Darren Kuppan is marvellous in the role. His portrait of Duryodhana is of a man constantly simmering with rage that frequently boils over. It is no surprise that Kuppan started as a dancer since he conveys Duryodhana’s emotions with his whole body that tenses and explodes with power.

The very opposite of Duryodhana is his grand-uncle Bhishma, whose vow of celibacy, however well meant, paved the way for future conflict. Jain has the male role played by female Australian actor Sukania Venugopal. Though Bhishma is often accused of favouring the Kaurava cause, Venugopal plays him as the voice of reason in a world grown increasingly divided and dangerous. Bhishma is the only character in the work who sees the genesis and the disastrous outcome of his decision. Venugopal infuses Bhishma’s voice with authority and wisdom. Bhishma is given the gift of choosing when he will die. Venugopal’s portrayal of Bhishma’s death is perhaps the most moving scene in the entire play as Venugopal makes painfully evident Bhishma does not want his wisdom to die with him.

Two other strong performances come from Goldy Notay, who has a Canadian and British background, and Sakuntala Ramanee from the UK. Notay plays two key roles, the most important of which is Gandhari, the wife of the blind king Dhritarashtra. Notay makes Gandhari’s choosing to blindfold herself for life to experience the world as her husband does a scene of exquisitely restrained emotion.

Ramanee also plays two roles, the most important of which is Shakuni, the brother of Gandhari and thus the uncle of the Kauravas. Ramanee makes this male role entirely her own infusing her character with a deviousness so wicked it almost makes us side with the Pandavas, whom he views as his enemies. This is particularly evident in one of the most famous sequences in the epic, the game of dice, in which Shakuni using enchanted dice wins everything from the fatally weak  Yudhishthira, including the Pandavas’ freedom. Ramanee makes Shakuni’s increasingly wild cries of “I’ve won!” sound like a vulture tearing ever bigger strips of meat off a carcass.

Many people, myself included, have studied the Bhagavad Gita as a religious scripture without realizing that the entire text is simply one part (Book 6, Chapters 23-40) of the Mahabharata. The Gita consists of the answers that Krishna gives to Arjuna as they are about to enter into war. Krishna’s answers are the some of the most fundamental statements about ethics and the nature of reality in Hinduism. Here, for instance, is contained the idea that the world as perceived by human senses is an illusion: “The world is caught up by appearances, / Ego endlessly distracts from seeing the eternal / Principle: / that the humblest flower / Is connected to the grandeur of the constellations”.

To signal that this section of the epic poem is notably different from the narrative that surrounds it, Jain and Fernandes have had the glorious idea of presenting it as an opera. Canadian singer Meher Pavri, dressed as a goddess, sings selected lines of the Gita in Sanskrit while surtitles translate the song into English above. The effect is very much like Philip Glass’s Sanskrit-language opera Satyagraha (1980), except that John Gzowski and Suba Sankaran’s music, while rhythmically propulsive, is more varied in structure and tone than are Glass’s arpeggiations. Pavri’s rich soprano slowly chants her words, suggesting calm in contrast with turmoil, as she gracefully walks from the wings to take a position beside Neil D’Souza as Krishna just when Arjuna asks to see Krishna in his true form. We realize with a thrill that Pavri, whose character is known only as the Opera Singer, must really represents a female version of Vishnu, whose avatar is Krishna.

This fantastic scene closes Act 1 of Part 2 and we wonder what could possibly succeed such sublime music so beautifully performed. We have the answer at the beginning of Act 2 of Part 2, when Jain and Fernandes have had the equally dazzling idea of presenting the climactic 18-day Kurukshetra War as a dance by Shiva, the god known as “The Destroyer”. Jay Emmanuel, an Australian born in India, dances this role with such unparalleled precision and fierceness it is frightening. Emmanuel’s costumed kathakali-influenced dance contrasts with the beautifully executed odissi-influenced dance interlude in Part 1 that Canadian Ellora Patnaik had given as Kunti, the ecstatic mother of the Pandavas.

As director and associate director Jain and Fernandes have given the play a concept that only heightens the stage adaptation’s qualities as art and as contemporary commentary. The production moves from the simplest forms of theatricality and design in Part 1 to more technological forms of theatricality and design in Part 2. In Part 1 the action takes place inside a large circle of red sand which the actors are quite careful not to disturb. The music is live and supplied by a band of six (one of whom was absent the day I saw the show). Looking past the band we see an empty space and the back wall of the Festival stage. The band comprises both electric guitars and traditional Indian instruments so that the notion of a progress through time is already implied.

Once the Storyteller mentions King Janamejaya’s slaughter of the snakes, a beam as wide as the stage is slowly flown upwards uncoiling the ropes that have lain before it. The constant presence of the hanging ropes reminds us of the snakes and thus of the framing story concerned as it is with the consequences of a cycle of revenge. Once the balance of power tilts towards the Kauravas, the luminous circle of a moon is slowly lowered downwards, a symbol of the Kauravas as a lunar dynasty as opposed to the Pandavas, who are thought of as a solar dynasty given their progenitor Kunti’s early impregnation by Surya, the sun god. Any notion of peace, however, is totally destroyed by a wild, whirling dance by Drupada, an ally of the Pandavas and danced by Jay Emmanuel, who totally obliterates the circle of sand, kicking it hither and thither until its shape is unrecognizable.

Jain and Fernandes use this destruction of the sacred performance space at the end of Part 1 as a symbol of the steady march to destruction that will occur in Part 2. The action of Part 2 occurs 13 years after that of Part 1, matching the 13 years that the Kauravas sent the Pandavas into exile. In term of design, the stage floor is now covered with carpets. People do not sit on stools but on chairs, some in French Empire style, some modern metal folding chairs. One table is in French Empire style but another where there is a laptop and goose-neck lamp is thoroughly modern.

19th-century chandeliers first lowered when the palace of the Kauravas was described in Part 1 illuminate the scene. There is recorded music, not live musicians. And screens hangs where the beam of ropes did in Part 1. On these Hana S. Kim’s projections are shown, sometimes abstract, but most importantly live video when King Dhritarashtra or his son Duryodhana give speeches about the need to go to war with the Kauravas. No one needs to look long for the relevance of a literally blind king and his distempered son demanding that their country go to war. The circle of the moon is missing, but in Act 2 of Part 2 before the battle, a projection of the sun replaces it.

While Gillian Gallow’s attractive traditionally inspired costumes remain the same, Lorenzo Savoini’s set has moved into the present. Jain and Fernandes are likely suggesting that while technology may change the look of the world, human nature largely stays the same.

It is a pity that so stunning an adaptation and dazzling a production as Why Not Theatre’s Mahabharata should be presented by the Shaw Festival for so short a period of time. This is a work that demands to be seen by the greatest possible number of theatre-lovers. It is a work that catapults the already innovative Why Not Theatre into the highest level of theatre companies in this country. It is set to tour to the Barbican in London, but one hopes it will also tour more widely.

It is a work that opens a window on one of the greatest of all epics of world literature and demonstrates why the ideas that imbue the epic are still of vital significance to us today. When Why Not first announced its plans to bring the Mahabharata to the stage I had my doubts that what was then such a small company could pull off such an enormous feat. Instead, I find the company has succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. Bravissimo to everyone involved in this tremendous project.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Neil D’Souza as Krishna and Anaka Maharaj-Sandhu as Arjuna; Miriam Fernandes as the Storyteller; Navtej Sandhu as Karna, Sukania Venugopal as Bhishma, Harmage Singh Kalirai as Dhritarashtra, Shawn Ahmed as Yudhishthira, Darren Kuppan as Duryodhana, Munish Sharma as Bhima, Anaka Maharaj-Sandhu as Arjuna and Goldy Notay as Draupadi; the ensemble in Mahabharata, Part 1; Neil D’Souza aas Krishna and Meher Pavri as Opera Singer; Jay Emmanuel as Shiva. © 2023 David Cooper.

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