Fringe Online 2021
Directed by Jatinda Verma for JST’s Footprints Festival. Designed by Claudia Mayer, Sound Design by Laura Howard, Music Composed by James Hesford and Jataneel Banerjee, with two vocalists: Sohini Alam and Mohini Menon. Lighting by Johanna Town’s simple. Camera work from several angles (Director Mark Swadel, Operator Balazs Weidner), including seventy-five degrees overhead, are deftly sequenced. Till June 12th. Filmed and may be later available as stream.
It might be difficult with so many Jermyn Street productions recently to cast memory back to that first epic of this astonishing producing theatre, unparalleled at any time. Last October 72 actors over 12 hours read 24 Books of Homer’s The Odyssey.
In The Mahabharata – presented in Carole Satyamurti’s (1939-2019) final Forward-prize-shortlisted translation of 2015 – forces are more modest amidst 43 productions. Just 12 women actors and three 100-minute parts (heralded as 80), whose titles – Game of Dice (the players are born to chance), the exilic shape-shifting Exile in the Forest and roar of catastrophe and aftermath in The Wheel of Time punctuate this longest of epics; still unfamiliar, if always known of as one of the key works of world literature, and adapted for instance on Radio 4.
Directed by Jatinda Verma for JST’s Footprints Festival. Designed by Claudia Mayer, Sound Design by Laura Howard, Music Composed by James Hesford and Jataneel Banerjee, Lighting by Johanna Town’s simple and unfussy for a concentrated semi-circle of women readers, concentrated on the lectern and the one standing.
Specifically gendered, this retelling registers the humanity and psychology of the epic, rather more than the events, dear god, events, battles and seductions.
It points up too Satyamurti’s repointing of its modernity, its startling gamut of sexual jealousy, nobility, vengeful plotting, grief and its corrosiveness, wild joys, desire from both sexes, malignant sadness, resentment, missed opportunities, false or mistaken gestures, humour, childish gods, adult renunciatory humans, incessant testing.
There’s 100 sections in this vast canvas of dynastic struggle and wars between virtuous and vicious cousins, where gods drop in though unlike the Greeks seem on the side of virtue, and thus the Pandavas. Though necessary compression means we speed through some sections – catalogues of battles, the sheer scope of exile, though given enough leash here – and a canny whittling as you’d expect.
Game of Dice
Read magisterially by Shaheen Khan with a strong sense of the opening ritual, a storytelling painterliness; and Josephine Lloyd-Welcome, every word weighed and concentrated to draw you in; with lively, expressive panache by Medhavi Patel, Sharon Singh with urgent almost Greek-messenger like telling. Each takes up from the other by doubling their words as one fades in and the other out.
There’s a prologue – the setting up in a court of a retelling, a framing device fast dismissed as we’re into the generation of heroes with haggling, girls who could remain virgins after sex with gods, a dizzying cast. The bloody mass turned into a 100 embryos in 100 jars of ghee is a memorable moment, related by Khan, followed by crows and blind parents. But the first of those 100 is evil…It’s an epic of of scene-setting prophesy (Khan) then exposition and mating (Lloyd-Welcome) celibate self-sacrifice, ascetics shaped as deeds mistakenly shot whilst coupling with roes and uttering dying curses.
The three older wives retreat to a forest as Singh takes up with an urgent pace – no playfulness here but a Greek intensity of telling – the conclusion of this section, treating up of the two brothers’ offspring growing, the five brothers Pandava, led by Yudhishthira ,various illegitimate sons, and look out for that first-born of the 100 jars. An uncle Shakuni, who can play dice, his brother the king Yudhishthira who loves to play but is transparently useless with no poker face, and a wealth to win. There’s a dramatic interjection here by other voices, single but telling. This epic has a remarkably modern psychology, the way a losing streak in gambling consumes you. Even after he loses himself, Yudhishthira queen Draupadi is lost.
Or is she? It’s like a scene from Measure for Measure, turning on legal points. We return to the first reader, Khan for the coda. Satyamurti invokes a flicker of Shakespearean phrases in the great court confrontation. A second wager in the wake of Yudhishthira’s release means losing a kingdom, exile for 13 years, the last year in public. Should he be recognized, another 13 years attend him. And his brothers. We close on dreadful portents and a sad Arden visited by Krishna and a wronged queen vowing vengeance.
Exile in the Forest
Not Arden but Eden? Satyamurti starts off with angry queen Draupadi chafing furiously at her apparently inert husband, the various brothers (Bhishma the brick-shithouse warrior) and more wise counsel. One, Argena finds he’s been fighting Shiva and is granted a WMD which has the power to end thew world. Familiar?
Vineeta Rishi leads off, with brothers always fighting or encountering disguised gods with of voices. We get even more scenes of the knowing mischievousness of gods, their only superiority being that they know they’re being so. From this time there’s an increased frequency of the other readers participating, echoing calls, firing riddles.
Shobna Gulati picks up the quizzically-voiced element and a set of tales – of wishes, javelins and animals with the five brothers. The deaths of sons, resurrections wishes granted. One is total disguise, and returning to the palace of their exile. Though disguised Draupadi is again assaulted and again can’t be rescued by her five husbands. There’s a cut and thrust here, vengeance and vanishings.
There’s now a change of pace – much of this has to be condensed – but now sombre epic returns. Harvey Virdi with storytelling verve relates how the brother Argena disguised as a woman has to give the timorous Uthera heart as charioteer, and because there’s dispute about when the thirteenth year is up – the battle of Kurukshetra leaves everyone dead but the five brothers and Krishna. There’s again great discussion on fate and virtue, and the desire for peace. Even though Yudhishthira offers peace in return for quiet living in villages, he knows ‘where does killing stop?’ Lord Krishna his cousin will do his best. But. We explode with a chorus by Draupadi on her defilers, nothing loth on revenge.
Goldy Notay reads with sinew and snap, voices and shape-shifting pace, at a real plunge to end this sequence. Negotiations fail when Lord Krishna is taken prisoner. Of course he laughs it off quietly. And attempts to avoid bloodshed. And we get an interpolated story, a rousing fable. And there’s a surprise illegitimate son, Karna son of a sun god, whom Krishna has to persuade out of his apparent family and loyalties to the evil cousin. Karna doesn’t want to be known to his brothers, so as not to inherit. Then his true mother Kunthi also tells Karna who he is. Karna, the sun-worshipper, is conflicted, bit still has to oppose his newly-discovered brothers. Notay’s explosive climax is one of the most thrilling of this series as it all dissolves into the music.
The Wheel of Time
Stephanie Street reads in a limbering up for battle, with a tragic alacrity as the tragic collision between the five known brothers and the forces under Karna begin to clash and explode. Street ratchets up the tension of last-minute calls for peace and implacable to its release of full war.
This falls to Sudha Bhuchar’s hands who in her terraced voices and almost playfulness express the devastating gaiety of the catastrophe. The deaths and slow grinding down, the quick flurries – and the sheer trickery of Lord Krishna. The necessity doesn’t sit well with mortals.
Sasha Behar relates with fleetness and tragic shifts of pace, first the register of loss then keening the dead. Behar digs into explosive grief, recrimination – even with Krishna who turns as ever smiling on the mortals and points out the demons at the start needed tricking so the gods could prosper.
So is it here. Kunti’s rather unfairly berated for not revealing her son Karna’s identity, now he’s died at his brother’s hands. One ought at this point to have inserted: ‘he forbade me’ but there’s a remarkably modern sense of guilt post-traumatic stress and finally even Yudhishthira wants to abdicate, till he’s given short shrift on that score and told to shape up.
Shelley King then in a grandeur of quiet abdications sixteen years on, tells how the older generation remove themselves to a forest, consumed by fire two years later. King really as the measure of the pathos and the residual terriblis of this consummation and relates it with a power in reserve – and sudden shafts of grief – that makes her a fitting concluder of the tal.
You forget they were even there – it seems strange an elder generation was there but not in fact in charge. Kunti’s joined them. Then finally the five brothers led by Yudhishthira and including their shared wife Draupadi leave for the high mountain, dropping one by one in the snow – in accordance with their slight sins, till Yudhishthira alone with a faithful dog is to be collected in a god-helmed chariot.
Two tests await. Yudhishthira won’t leave the dog, who turns out a god (haven’t you always wanted to read that?) and then refuses to leave the hell his brothers and wife are in. Just as well, this proves a brief purgatory in accordance with their slight sins Other gets longer the damned are allowed to taste heaven first for their few good deeds then it’s hell for them.
This is again an epic recitation, lent a terrific authority in being embodied by women, centring the humanity and not the occasional panache and testosterone – which here in different voices gets its blast too.
Satyamurti’s retelling flickers with Anglicisms and echoes of Shakespeare Milton and others. Above all she makes the strange familiarly strange, and this most revered and unread of world texts a supple, settled epic in English.
At JST though we get a dramatic sense of arrival the way the Odyssey here ended: a clash of even vaster ferocity, keening, treachery, humour, mischievousness, sacrifice and grief, joy and the agency of women.