The Mahabharata is the world’s longest epic poem. Its 100,000 Sanskrit verses run to fifteen times the length of the Bible. Early versions were begun in about the fourth century BC, and it took several centuries to compile. Running the gamut of human feeling – exultation, loyalty, lust, compassion – it comprises stories within stories that are themselves interpolated with digressions and detours. Tales of gods and monsters interweave with discourses on politics and reflections on metaphysics. Just as remarkable as its scale and range, the Mahabharata – unlike the Homeric epics, or the Norse myths, or the Celtic sagas – continues to this day as a living tradition, retold in India not only through classical and folk performances, but in popular media from comics to film and television.
Anyone planning a production of the Mahabharata therefore faces two fundamental questions: how to condense it to digestible length, and how much implicit knowledge to assume from the audience. The current production, which opened at Sadler’s Wells in London and tours the UK until July, is an ambitious attempt to address those issues for a British audience who don’t necessarily have any cultural reference points. If the sheer scale of that task militates against such an aim, the Mahabharata does at least have one helpful aspect: the text may be sprawling and multifarious, but it is nevertheless held within a single story arc, which tells of a feud in a warrior dynasty between the five Pandava brothers and their hundred cousins, the Kauravas, leading to an apocalyptic final battle.
Director Stuart Wood and writer Stephen Clark have wisely chosen to focus on a single character within this story – in this case Draupadi, the wife of the five Pandavas who is the catalyst for if not the cause of the war. They’ve also chosen – wisely again – to use many different media, to communicate the story on as many levels as possible. Kathak dancer and choreographer Gauri Sharma Tripathi adds a vital element of physical communication by delineating action and character through movement. Composer Nitin Sawhney provides a score that straddles styles and genres, with tabla beats backing a string quartet. Puppetry specialist Sue Buckmaster contributes a ‘visual story’ by using different fabrics: huge swathes of coloured cloth, blue for the peaceable beginning, red as the vengeance and bloodshed escalates. And video artist Lorna Heavey uses projections at crucial moments to represent a distant scene, or the otherworldly aspects of the god Krishna.
The production opens with a lengthy and visually striking danced prologue. Angela Davies’s monolothic set towers in the background like a mythic metallic fortress. And the action is fast and dynamic, Tripathi deploying the rhythmic complexity of kathak to drum up a furious energy with the ensemble of dancers. For all this, the prologue is a wasted opportunity: instead of setting up the story, it dives straight into display – so we don’t know who these people are or why they’re there.
Gradually the plot begins to develop. Draupadi (Natasha Jayatileke) sings about the choices and the destiny that she faces in the story to come. Krishna (Gary Pillai) introduces the characters: first Duryodhana (Michael Matus), the principle Kaurava, born from a puppet mother made of twisted cloth; later the five Pandavas, shown training in combat, with their warrior hero Arjun (Marco José James) winning an archery contest. But problems arise again: the appearance of low-bred Karna (Elia Lo Tauro) is a loose thread: we don’t know that he is in fact the eldest Pandava – and even when, later in the story, their mother Kunthi (Madha Divekar) is shown giving him up as a baby to float down a river, we don’t know why she does this. The ‘palace of illusions’ scene – splendidly realised with opulent reds and joyous folk dancing – is also left dangling. The palace is in fact a trap for the Pandavas, from which they escape and subsequently go into exile, but that backstory is unfathomable for those who don’t already know it.
There are inevitably many such pieces of information that a condensed story simply cannot address. The production fares better on a visual and non-verbal level than on that of character and plot. Tripathi does some sterling work in marshalling the sides into battle, knowing that stillness can be as effective as action in building tension as she regiments the cast into lines. Props are deployed to great effect: when Duryodhana is consumed by rage and envy, he is speared with wooden stakes so that his very body seems to bristle with hard feelings. And Draupadi, on finding out that she is to be married to five men, gradually and sensually comes to realise the pleasures it offers: she’s spun round on a web of white cloth, each husband the spoke of a wheel with Draupadi as the axis of their attention.
The script, though, is wildly variable. At its best it touches upon themes about passion and its consequences, about chance and choice. At its worst it veers towards platitude and sentimentality as if this were Mahabharata, the Lloyd Webber Musical – you half expect a song which begins ‘Don’t cry for me, Arjun…’ And finally, this production simplifies the Mahabharata into a tale of good and evil, with a redeeming, self-sacrificing act of forgiveness at its end. Which is to say, it recasts a complex, pessimistic and morally ambiguous story into an altogether more Christian framework – and that just doesn’t ring true. This may be an ambitious and spectacular production of the Mahabharata, but it is ultimately overwhelmed by its epic source.