Ramayana [re]written and dir. David Farr, Lyric Hammersmith

Or ‘How to tell an epic with seven actors in the space of 2 hours (plus a 20 minute interval) …

Well obviously compacting a book means a huge pile of stuff is left out: the play starts with Dasharatha announcing that Rama will be king so everything that happens before then (and that’s an awful lot of the good stuff) is gone along with Kausalya, Sumitra and Shatrughna along with … well, come to think of it, it’ll probably be easier if I just told what was still in the play:

Characters: Sita, Rama, Lakshmana, Dasharatha, Kaikeyi, Hanuman, Vali, Jatayu, Surpanakha, Maricha, Surgriva, oh yeah and Ravana.

Incidents: well um, for some reason, I guess for simplicity’s sake, they decided to amalgamate Kaikeyi and Manthara, so Kaikeyi appears to be evil and then decided to emphasise her evilness by making the actor double as Ravana … kind of missing the point about destiny but um, ok; Rama leaving for the forest, still there; Bharat coming to the forest, still there; Surpanakha losing her nose, still there; Sita, Lakshmana and the circle, there; death of Vali, there; Hanuman and leap to Lanka, there; Hanuman and the mountain, still in; Sita and the purity test, still there too.

Things that were cool: The entrance of Ravana. The actors held masks next to the actress to make up his many heads and with a narrow band of light just highlighting the faces, it looked spectacular. But sadly it was only for the moment, with the image established, the masks only made a reappearance for the death of Ravana. Had they maintained the illusion for the whole play (however impractical) it would have helped to enhance the play as an epic. There were other bits of puppetry in it here and there, but these were always too brief to have lasting impact and on the bare stage they really didn’t achieve the same magic as the masks.

Things I didn’t like: The language. I can see how the writer got caught out by this one. It’s so easy to shift into grand formal language when trying to convey the majesty of an epic, but boy it’s bloody hard to get right, especially when you decide to have the mechanical-like monkeys speak in colliquialisms. The sentence structure sounded so unnatural and awkward that it jarred to hear it. As always though, you learn lessons from other writers – when I work on The Untouchables version of the Ramayana, language is going to be important.

Things I questioned: Why was there only one Desi (or maybe there were two but I can’t be sure) in the cast? This show was created in the UK, where there are hundreds of Indian actors about as opposed to New Zealand where there are … let me count, seeing I’ve met all of them … ah yes, seven. A bit disappointing really because I think it had an impact on the show, the one Indian guy in the show took so much pride in his work, he was brilliant and it made all of the difference (he was the only one to namaste the audience, looking a touch embarrassed to be cheered on), not because of the colour of his skin, but because he got it, he appeared to know the importance of playing Rama on stage (you are playing God after all) and leading to my next bit, he was the only one to pronounce names and places properly.

Things I got mad at: Pronounciation. Actually this one has me fuming. You have one actor, the lead, pronouncing everything properly. Everything. The rest of the cast? Nope, not one of them got pronounciation right. Why not? Why did they not practice pronouncing names properly especially when their lead actor was there, with them in the rehearsal room, saying it all properly? Could they not have done a session in rehearsal to make sure it was right? So very, very angry. I’ve corrected all sorts of people of pronounciation and have in turn been corrected myself. Absolutely unacceptable to have actors mispronounce names, bad, bad, bad!

And frankly that ruined and typified the production for me. There was so much potential for this to be a great production, even with only seven actors, but it felt like a grand dream that just couldn’t be realised because there wasn’t enough time or enough attention to detail in both performances and conception …

A goodly lesson there.

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