Review: Why Not Theatre’s Mahabharata exhibits it warrants an international showcase in breathtaking entire world premiere at the Shaw Pageant

Jay Emmanuel as Shiva with the cast of Mahabharata.David Cooper/Shaw Pageant

  • Title: Mahabharata: Aspect 1 and Aspect Two
  • Composed and adapted by: Ravi Jain and Miriam Fernandes with poetry from Carole Satyamurti
  • Director: Ravi Jain with Miriam Fernandes
  • Actors: Miriam Fernandes, Shawn Ahmed, Ellora Patnaik, Jay Emmanuel
  • Corporation: Why Not Theatre introduced by the Shaw Festival
  • Venue: Festival Theatre
  • Town: Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
  • Yr: Runs to March 26, 2023

Critic’s Select


Irrespective of whether The Mahabharata is central to your tradition, or the only Dharma you know was married to a dude named Greg, Why Not Theatre’s generally breathtaking new phase adaptation of the vintage Indian epic is well worth a pilgrimage to the Shaw Pageant in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

For this two-aspect, five-hour show done by an intercontinental forged of 14 actors (with 5 understudies on hand) from the South Asian diaspora, co-writers Ravi Jain and Miriam Fernandes have lower a apparent route via the forest of tales discovered in the historic Sanskrit poem that has been explained as longest piece of literature in the entire world.

Like the most effective marathon theatre performances, this Mahabharata – the post “the” usually affixed to the title in English was an uncomplicated cut, I guess – is lengthy but under no circumstances exhausting. There’s loads of area to breathe developed into its nested narratives, and standard shifts in form keep the performance fresh.

The to start with section, subtitled Karma, is merely 1st-fee storytelling theatre.

Fernandes is front and centre as an unnamed narrator, who, in the show’s framing device, is charming the unseen King Janamejaya with a chronicle of his individual spouse and children history to distract him from a vengeful marketing campaign to rid the earth of snakes by fire. (There is a hint of 1001 Evenings in this article – but with the stakes raised to the extinction of an entire species if this Scheherazade’s tales get tedious.)

All over Fernandes, the other actors slip in and out of a colossal solid of the king’s ancestors – kinds who, playfully, do not necessarily correspond to their possess ages, human body types, genders or ABC of accents (largely Australian, British and Canadian).

These very bodily performers phase or dance or creepily crawl in and out of a large circle of orange-crimson powder reminiscent of the sindoor utilized for religious purposes in Hinduism – but which I am reliably knowledgeable is essentially mulched rubber. It at some point is scattered in a whirl of destruction to become the bloody earth of the battlefield in the war amongst the Pandavas and the Kauravas.

Who are they? Properly, the major job of Karma is to outline the complicated lineage of these princely cousins – they are stricken by curses that influence fertility, bound by vows that tends to make succession a sticky enterprise, and are element of an prolonged spouse and children that contains fish, bottles of ghee and a fifty percent-dozen deities.

Of the 100 Kaurava brothers, only one will get represented by an on-stage avatar – but the good thing is the muscular-in-all-senses actor Darren Kuppan has the existence of a dozen as Duryodhana. He’s brilliantly brooding, his scooping northern English accent introducing a dash of Richard III to his portrait of this resentful ruler.

Miriam Fernandes as The Storyteller.David Cooper/Shaw Competition

The 5 major Pandava princes, meanwhile, are represented by a few actors. The sincere Yudhishthira is performed with sensitivity by Shawn Ahmed and the ferocious Bhima by a boisterous bear-like Munish Sharma, while Anaka Maharaj-Sandhu, a fresh minted Nationwide Theatre School of Canada graduate, brings the countenance of a youthful matinée idol to the great archer Arjuna – who can make LOTR’s Legolas’s competencies with a bow glance dégueulasse.

Introducing added drama and momentum to their tale that potential customers up to a dice game on which a kingdom is wagered, 6 on-phase musicians led by vocalist Suba Sankaran participate in devices ranging from the bansuri to the electric bass the enveloping and fascinating songs and audio layout is co-credited to Sankaran and her bandmate John Gzowski.

In the second fifty percent of Mahabharata, subtitled Dharma, the now promptly impending war sees Jain try out more avant-garde directorial tips even as the creating twists into far more classic scenes.

The strains borrowed from poet Carole Satyamurti’s English retelling for the script can sometimes appears a tiny stilted as dialogue – and the occasional action-movie cliché intrudes.

But the shifts in staging are compelling as the circles of the initially part’s set design and style (brilliant, by Lorenzo Savoini) are replaced by rectangles: rugs lying on the floor and screens that decreased from the flies to broadcast failed peace negotiations or expressionistic dispatches from a overcome that threatens the cosmos.

When the original battle is about to consider put, Arjuna and the deity Krishna (the deliciously deadpan Neil D’Souza) have their popular dialogue about daily life, the universe and every thing acknowledged as the Bhagavad Gita – and the production suddenly bursts into opera and soprano Meher Pavri slowly crossing the phase singing Sanskrit lyrics (translated by English surtitles).

It is a testament to the all round cohesion of Jain’s creation that this second does not seem like interdisciplinarianism for the sake of it – but certainly critical to the storytelling.

That is real much too of the martial arts and dance in other places integrated by choreographer Brandy Leary. On individuals fronts, Ellora Patnaik (Raffo on CBC’s Sort Of) impresses with her Odissi dance-drama competencies as matriarch Kunti, even though Jay Emmanuel wonderfully delivers his Kathakali practice to a pair of figures in a way that sent shivers down my backbone.

To go back to the double-pronged assert at the get started of this evaluate: As a theatre critic who scarcely realized The Mahabharata beyond studying about British director Peter Brook’s 1980s generation, I uncovered this adaptation of the unfamiliar material quick to adhere to – and Hindu ideas this sort of as dharma contained therein fascinatingly communicated in all their complexity.

But it is to my Globe and Mail colleague Sonali Verma, who grew up with all the particulars of this tale, that I need to attribute the observation that the present is also captivating to people perfectly-versed in the authentic verses: She was amazed by how the creators the two minimize down and nonetheless remained devoted to the epic.

That gaze-bridging achievements of this show bodes very well as it embarks on an international tour starting off in England afterwards this 12 months, which is an open up mystery presented this operate at the Shaw Competition is offered in affiliation with London’s Barbican. Mahabharata is of a top quality that surely justifies a international showcase.